Series on Spaceport America Looks on the Bright Side

Sunset at the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space” terminal hangar facility at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America) began a five-part series on Spaceport America today. Is Spaceport America taking flight? is the first installment.

The piece is fairly optimistic on the financial front, perhaps too much so. It examines positive financial impact on the local economy to date and projects forward to when Virgin Galactic begins flying commercially from the facility, possibly next year.
Yes, the area is benefiting from the spaceport, but the numbers seem meager given the $225 million that taxpayers have poured into the project, the years of delay and the promises made at the time about the expected economic impacts.

One thing that is not examined is that residents of two local counties voted to tax themselves to support spaceport construction with the idea the money would go toward paying off bonds. Excess amounts have been diverted to plugging holes in the spaceport’s budget caused by delays in Virgin Galactic beginning flight operations there.

Perhaps the author will deal with that controversy tomorrow. In the meantime, I did find a few things in the piece of interest given the years I’ve spent watching the Mojave Air and Space Port operate.

Fifty-one people currently have government jobs with the Spaceport Authority – including Hicks and his staff in Las Cruces and the contract fire and security crews at the spaceport, Hicks said. Most are full-time positions. Those people spend money in the local economy.

That sounds like a lot. Mojave is a general aviation airport, spaceport, rocket test area and industrial park all in one. I don’t think they have that many people involved in running the facility, which is pretty busy compared with Spaceport America.

Being located an hour outside of Truth or Consequences means that Spaceport America needs full-time fire protection. The Mojave spaceport can rely on local fire service for backup during operating hours and protection during the rest of the week. There’s also a Kern County Sheriff station right outside the main entrance to supplement airport security.

There’s also this interesting paragraph.

Funding issues, including tension over whether the state or local communities should shoulder more of the burden, need to be resolved. New Mexico’s spaceport gets less public funding than facilities in Florida and Virginia. To attract new companies, Hicks’ team has identified additional infrastructure needs, including hangars and runways. [Emphasis added]

Translation: taxpayers should be prepared to pour more money into the facility that’s already cost them nearly a quarter billion dollars. Although some of the funds for these improvements will come from revenues once Virgin Galactic begins to fly from Spaceport America, taxpayers will be on the hook for the rest.

The runway is a biggie. To save money on the original project, New Mexico built a single runway. A crosswind runway would allow for more operations and also improve safety. (Mojave, by the way, has three runways of different lengths.)

Runways don’t come cheap. In 2012, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) spent $7 million to add 2,000 feet to Spaceport America’s existing 10,000-foot runway.

Hangars can be as inexpensive or as elaborate as you want to make them. But, they also need roads, parking lots, utilities and taxiways that need to be built, maintained and expanded as needed.

Additional tenants would be a good insurance policy against another catastrophic failure of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. Right now, the company has only one spacecraft, which means it’s risking an enormous amount every time they fly the vehicle.

It has taken about three years for Virgin Galactic to recover from the loss of SpaceShipTwo Enterprise on Oct. 31, 2014. Another accident could delay commercial flights from New Mexico by years if it doesn’t end the SpaceShipTwo program entirely.

Given how generous New Mexico was with Virgin Galactic (the spaceport cost about $225 million), prospective new tenants are going to be coming in expecting the state to pony up. Companies don’t like paying for basic infrastructure; that’s what governments (i.e., taxpayers) are for.