Spaceport America Spending Criticized

Spaceport America fly-in. (Credit: NMSA)
Spaceport America fly-in. (Credit: NMSA)

KRQE News has looked into how the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) is spending money on Spaceport America — and it’s not pretty.

The authority is paying $2.9 million annually to a company to provide state-of-the-art fire protection to the largely empty spaceport — which is used for the occasional sounding rocket launch and television commercial.

Officials defend the expense because it would take the nearest fire company an hour to reach the remote facility should a serious fire break out.

Meanwhile, NMSA spent so much money with a company to design the visitors’ experience that it had no money left over to actually build the facilities for it.

Of course, none of this would be a significant problem if the spaceport’s anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic, was flying space tourism flights out of Spaceport America.

The company’s only SpaceShipTwo crashed in October, and recovery could take longer than expected, according to Virgin Galactic senior program manager Mark Butler.

Butler said crews in California were taking lessons learned from the accident and applying those to construction of the new rocket. In the meantime, Virgin Galactic continues work on support operations at the spaceport in anticipation of the test flights resuming in late 2016. The accident led to a “slowdown” of work at the spaceport, but Butler said the company was now “back on track” with the project. Just two weeks ago Virgin Galactic received a certificate of occupancy for its support operations areas at the spaceport.

“The program is not ending,” Butler said. “We are moving forward with this.”

He anticipates the project will bring 80 to 100 people to the area when operations move here from Mojave.

“Spaceport America is our home,” Butler said. “Our business model hasn’t changed. If there’s one thing I can ask of you, it is a bit more patience.”

Judging from the response of political leaders, patience is in increasingly short supply.

Senator John Arthur Smith, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, says the Spaceport should be careful with taxpayer money.

“Given the scarcity of dollars in the state of New Mexico on our revenue side, if there was ever a time to be efficient with your dollars it should be now.” Senator John Arthur Smith said. He adds, there is no guarantee public funding will be available to the Spaceport in the future.

“I’m having a difficult time just funding streets and roads in the state of New Mexico that obviously take a higher priority in the taxpayers mind and I can’t guarantee that either.”

The spaceport authority is losing about a half million per year, a budget gap being made up by state taxpayers. Residents in Sierra and Dona Ana counties also pay a special sales tax that is being used to pay off construction bonds and to support operations.

  • Hemingway

    It is hard to find out how much taxpayers are paying for Spaceport America and how the money is being spent. It is like a top secret here in New Mexico.

  • Larry R. Scott

    As a pilot and avid aviation enthusiast it pains me to say
    that I am not a supporter of the Spaceport America project. The State of New Mexico has invested almost a quarter billion dollars in a facility designed specifically for the Virgin Galactic “space tourists” operation.
    Contrary to what Sir Richard Branson would have you believe, this
    operation will be substantially experimental for the foreseeable future. From the Wright brothers first flight in December, 1903 it has taken the better part of 100 years for the commercial aviation industry to achieve the exemplary safety record it now holds. An airline passenger today has almost no risk of not arriving at his intended destination (although possibly late and without luggage).

    The Virgin Galactic business model relies on very wealthy passengers paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for a few minutes of suborbital weightlessness. Despite the genius of the Rutan designed Spaceship Two, the speed involved and the harsh environment of near space will allow little headroom for design flaws or operational error. There will be significant risks involved with every mission and with the first catastrophic accident the well-heeled waiting line will disappear. At this point the taxpayers of New Mexico will have invested in a quarter billion dollar prop for commercial advertising projects, an investment unlikely to return a fraction of its original cost.

  • Snofru Chufu

    You list up major problems with VG’s concept. BO has chosen better way by applying a safety approach by using the capsule concept (separation of manned and propulsion section), redundant parachutes and a solid rocket powered rapid escape system.

  • Hemingway

    Spaceport America Authority & Tax Board structure – complex and secretive groups.

  • Hemingway

    Spaceport America and Sweden Spaceport are in the same boat. New Mexicans should know that Sir Richard Branson had a deal with Sweden. This 2007 article shows that Virgin Galactic wanted to use Spaceport America and Sweden Spaceport for future flights. Both spaceports are still waiting.