Collaboratory Formed to Promote New Mexico’s Spaceport America During Closed Door Meeting

Sunset at the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space” terminal hangar facility at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Officials from New Mexico, the federal government and Virgin Galactic met last week behind closed doors for the state’s first Space Valley Summit to form a “collaboratory” to promote Spaceport America and the state’s aerospace economy.

The one group not invited: taxpayers who have forked over about $250 million to build the spaceport where Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant. As the Las Cruces Sun News dryly noted

Minutes after [Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham] exhorted the summit to “make sure every New Mexican … knows exactly what is happening here,” all reporters were asked to leave. 

About 50 officials then met for about four hours behind closed doors, sans press or public they were urged to inform.

The exclusion continued a pattern of secrecy that has surrounded the publicly financed spaceport where Richard Branson’s suborbital tourism company is promising to finally begin launching 600 millionaires and billionaires into space this year after a decade of delays.

More on Spaceport America’s lack of transparency in a moment. In the meantime, you’re probably asking: what the hell is a collaboratory? According to a press release issued by the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA), which runs the spaceport:

The Collaboratory will be a forum in which parties propose, consider and refine ideas, concepts and strategies that promote development of aerospace business and economy in New Mexico; partner to obtain grants, funding and sponsorships and execute research, development, testing and other activities within their respective expertise.

So who was involved in the summit? In addition to Gov. Lujan Grisham and NMSU Executive Director Dan Hicks, the gathering included representatives from:

  • Los Alamos National Laboratory
  • Sandia National Laboratory
  • Air Force Research Laboratory
  • New Mexico State University
  • New Mexico Institute of Mining & Technology
  • University of New Mexico
  • White Sands Missile Range
  • Kirtland Air Force Base
  • New Mexico National Guard
  • Space Rapid Capabilities Office
  • New Mexico Space Grant Consortium
  • New Space New Mexico
  • Professional Aerospace Contractors Association of New Mexico
  • Virgin Galactic
  • Sen. Tom Udall’s office
  • Sen. Martin Heinrich’s office
  • Rep. Deb Haaland’s office.

The published list did not include any mention of representatives from any of the spaceport’s handful of other tenants.

NMSA officials defended the closed-door session.

The spaceport’s director of business development, Scott McLaughlin, told the Sun-News the meeting had originally been planned as a “low key” gathering so the large group of industry leaders and higher education officials might collaborate, rather than an open session. 

Transparency has never come easy for NMSA. Heath Haussamen, who runs the website NMPolitics.net, sued the authority to obtain unredacted versions of tenant leases that showed rent and fees.

At the Mojave Air and Space Port in California where Virgin Galactic builds SpaceShipTwo vehicles, a publicly elected board approves all leases without redaction during open meetings.

NMSA claimed it were protecting trade secrets, but Haussamen said the redaction violated New Mexico’s open records law. Oddly, the development and lease agreements with Virgin Galactic were released without redaction years ago.

Following a settlement under which the leases were released without redaction, the New Mexico Legislature passed a law that gave NMSA the authority to operate with increased secrecy.

The Las Cruces Sun News reported that Haussamen was not pleased with the exclusion of the media and public from the Space Valley Summit.

“I understand the need to protect trade secrets,” Haussamen told the Sun-News, “but a meeting involving spaceport officials, NMSU leaders, the governor and others that was announced to the news media and public beforehand should be an open meeting.” 

The summit comes as it appears that Spaceport America is finally going to be used for its intended purpose. Anchor tenant Virgin Galactic is set to complete its SpaceShipTwo flight test program and begin flying paying passengers from the facility this year.

When Branson and then Gov. Bill Richardson announced a deal for the state to build the spaceport in December 2005, they said Virgin Galactic would begin suborbital flights by 2009. They also promised the company would fly 50,000 passengers from the spaceport by the end of 2019.

That number stands at zero today. Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic has radically scaled down its passenger estimates. Branson’s company now projects it will fly total of 3,242 passengers on 270 flights through 2023.

Due to a decade of delay in beginning operations, the spaceport has failed to generate the economic benefits that were promised in 2005. Those benefits included:

  • $1 billion in total spending, payroll of $300 million and 2,300 jobs by the fifth year of operation; and,
  • $750 million in total revenues and more than 3,500 jobs by 2020.

Today, the jobs generated number in the hundreds. Many of them have involved the transfer of Virgin Galactic personnel to New Mexico from the company’s development facility in Mojave, Calif.

The delays have left NMSA short of revenues to run the spaceport. Virgin Galactic will pay fees to the authority based on the number of flights and passengers it flies. In the meantime, state taxpayers have been forced to cover shortfalls in the authority’s operating budget.

NMSA has also requested millions of dollars in additional state funding to fund infrastructure improvements at Spaceport America in order to attract additional tenants.

Residents of Sierra and Dona Ana counties voted to raise taxes on themselves to help fund construction of the spaceport. They continue to pay those taxes despite seeing few of the promised economic benefits thus far.

Despite the disappointing results thus far, the governor and the spaceport’s executive director forecast brighter days ahead. According to the press release:

Governor Lujan Grisham named the space industry as one of her nine economic growth sectors for the state. She was excited to see such a dynamic group of New Mexico leaders come together for the first time committed to advancing the space industry, expected to exceed $3 trillion in the next 20 years.

New Mexico is uniquely poised to meet the needs of this growing sector, with an established space launch and testing venue at Spaceport America, world-class universities and national research laboratories, and leading defense and aerospace development agencies.

“New Mexico is truly breaking barriers in the space industry,” Gov. Lujan Grisham said. “If it can be done anywhere – not just in the country, but in the world – it can be done better and quicker here.”

Hicks echoed her sentiment. “The objective of this summit was to unite New Mexico’s federal and state agencies in support of our nation’s space sector,” he said. “We did just that and set up a structure to move forward.”

The full NMSA press release is below.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham Kicks Off First Space Valley Summit

Spaceport America Press Release

Yesterday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham kicked off New Mexico’s first Space Valley Summit, an event that brought together the federal and state leaders of New Mexico’s industry.

Facilitated by Dan Hicks, Executive Director of the NM Spaceport Authority, New Mexico State University Chancellor Dr. Dan Arivzu, and Dr. Thomas Cooley, Chief Scientist Air Force Research Laboratory, Space Vehicles Directorate, the group agreed to work together as a “collaboratory” to foster coordination, collaboration, and resource-sharing.

The Collaboratory will be a forum in which parties propose, consider and refine ideas, concepts and strategies that promote development of aerospace business and economy in New Mexico; partner to obtain grants, funding and sponsorships and execute research, development, testing and other activities within their respective expertise.

Approximately 50 people participated in this historic event including leaders from Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratory, Air Force Research Laboratory, New Mexico State University, New Mexico Institute of Mining & Technology, University of New Mexico, White Sands Missile Range, Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico National Guard, the Space Rapid Capabilities Office, the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, New Space New Mexico, Professional Aerospace Contractors Association of New Mexico, and Virgin Galactic. Also present were representatives from Sen. Tom Udall’s office, Sen. Martin Heinrich’s office, and Congresswoman Deb Haaland’s office.

Governor Lujan Grisham named the space industry as one of her nine economic growth sectors for the state. She was excited to see such a dynamic group of New Mexico leaders come together for the first time committed to advancing the space industry, expected to exceed $3 trillion in the next 20 years.

New Mexico is uniquely poised to meet the needs of this growing sector, with an established space launch and testing venue at Spaceport America, world-class universities and national research laboratories, and leading defense and aerospace development agencies.

“New Mexico is truly breaking barriers in the space industry,” Gov. Lujan Grisham said. “If it can be done anywhere – not just in the country, but in the world – it can be done better and quicker here.”

Hicks echoed her sentiment. “The objective of this summit was to unite New Mexico’s federal and state agencies in support of our nation’s space sector,” he said. “We did just that and set up a structure to move forward.”