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.