Fourteen years ago, Virgin Galactic and New Mexico promised “tens of thousands” of tourists would fly to space from Spaceport America by 2019. Total thus far: 0.
by Douglas Messier Managing Editor
When they announced in December 2005 that Virgin Galactic would locate its space tourism business in New Mexico, Virgin Founder Richard Branson and Gov. Bill Richardson made a number of eye-popping claims about why taxpayers should back a plan to build the Southwest Regional Spaceport to serve as the space tourism company’s home base:
$331 million in total construction revenues in 2007;
2,460 construction-related jobs;
$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.
Virgin Galactic would sign a 20-year lease as anchor tenant and pay fees based on the number of launches it conducted. New Mexico would use the spaceport, Virgin’s presence and the funds generated to develop a large aerospace cluster.
Surprisingly, New Mexico would spend more money, $225 million, to develop a facility now known as Spaceport America than the $108 million that Branson planned to spend on developing a fleet of five SpaceShipTwos and WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.
Among all the big numbers in the announcement, there was a truly astounding one that was deemed so important it was mentioned twice. (Emphasis added)
Sometime in 2020, if all goes according to plan, British billionaire Richard Branson will board Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity at Spaceport America in New Mexico and take the first commercial suborbital space flight in history.
The landmark flight, which Virgin has been trying to conduct for 15 years, will also be the culmination of a 30-year effort by New Mexico to become a commercial space power.
The nonbinding memorandum of understanding involving $1 billion in investment from Saudi Arabia is Richard Branson’s latest success in obtaining financial support from governments for his Virgin Group’s space companies.
The table below shows funding invested directly into the group’s space ventures and indirectly for infrastructure.
VIRGIN GROUP SPACE COMPANIES — DIRECT & INDIRECT GOVERNMENT INVESTMENT
Custom built spaceport named Spaceport America constructed on 18,000 acres of land — Virgin Galactic signed 20 year lease to serve as anchor tenant
Government-owned sovereign wealth fund Aabar Investments obtained 31.6 percent share of Virgin Galactic — plans for a spaceport where SpaceShipTwo would fly in Dubai — future commitment of $100 million more when Virgin Galactic developed viable plan for small-satellite booster (LauncherOne)
Aabar Investments increased share of Virgin Galactic to 37.6 percent
Under non-binding MOU, government-run Public Investment Fund (PIC) would obtain undisclosed share of three Virgin Group space companies: Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit and The Spaceship Company — Virgin Group to maintain majority ownership
PIC has an option to invest nearly a half-billion more in Virgin Group space services
Ten years ago, New Mexico released an economic impact study conducted by the Futron Corporation that assessed the potential benefits of Spaceport America and the state’s newly announced partnership with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.
“The suborbital market features a strong increase in launches because of growing demand for space tourism, with the potential number of launches from the New Mexico spaceport increasing from 61 in 2010 to 426 in 2020,” the report states. “Futron estimates that the spaceport has the potential to provide the basis for creating approximately $460 million of additional economic activity in New Mexico, with some 3,460 new jobs in 2015.”
Arizona is looking to emulate its neighbor, New Mexico, by passing a bill protecting space companies from being sued for injuring or killing passengers:
A bill at the Arizona Legislature would give space flight companies — yes space flight companies — protections against being sued.
The measure is aimed at helping possible space tourism and commercial space flights being planned in southern parts of the state.
House Bill 2163 creates some legal protections for commercial and private space flight companies by codifying liability release forms the companies could have passengers sign.
“This is actually important,” said Steve Zylstra, president and CEO of the Arizona Technology Council. “Arizona, especially Southern Arizona, is in the Space Flight Corridor that extends from Texas to California. One of my members in Tucson, Paragon Space Development Corp., is planning trips to the outer edges of space, to the moon and to Mars.”
Paragon is not actually going to send people to space; they have a high-altitude balloon project in the works. But, the legislation will apparently cover their activities.
The New Mexico House has unanimously passed the spaceflight informed consent law, providing legal protections that Virgin Galactic said were required to keep it from moving out of the state and to attract other tenants to Spaceport America. The measure now goes to Gov. Susana Martinez, who has promised the sign the measure into law.
“I see this as a stepping stone to broaden space flight activities … not only for New Mexico but for the entire country,” said Rep. James White, an Albuquerque Republican. “There may be time when we launch spacecraft from here with passengers and land them within minutes on the other side of the world.”
Yeah, maybe. In about 20 years. In the meantime, New Mexico will have to hope that Virgin Galactic can begin commercial flights into space next year. Once that starts, the project can begin to deliver on its many promises to taxpayers.
Rep. Bill McCamley, a Las Cruces Democrat, said the spaceport can boost the state’s economy and provide high-paying jobs for New Mexicans, who otherwise might leave the state to find work in science, technology and engineering.
“This is something that southern New Mexico absolutely has to have,” he said.
Let’s hope he’s right. The expectations for the $209 million spaceport are, pardon the pun, sky high. New Mexico has done its part. Time for Virgin Galactic to stand and deliver.
The National out of the UAE has the latest schedule prediction from Virgin Galactic, which features the usual if, then we hope qualifiers and promises of great benefits once the blessed day arrives when commercial operations actually begin:
“Depending on the progress of the last portion of the experimental test flight programme and the federal aviation authority licensing process we hope to be undertaking full space test flights by the end of 2013 and in commercial operations within a relatively short period thereafter,” says Sean Wilson, a Virgin Galactic spokeswoman.
Editor’s Note: Well, there you have the argument in a nutshell: New Mexico has fallen behind Florida and Texas in the race to restrict the rights of passengers and their heirs to sue Virgin Galactic and other companies for injuries and deaths from spaceflights. If they don’t catch up, their $209 million investment could be for naught. And all this is happening even before the first SpaceShipTwo flight has taken off from Spaceport America.
The proposal failed in the Judiciary Committee on a 6-5 vote.
Democrats said the bill went too far in eroding the rights of consumers. The measure would have prevented passengers or their families from suing manufacturers of parts and equipment used in space flights.
Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, sponsored the bill on behalf of Spaceport America and businesses interested in New Mexico’s space industry. Papen said the vote was a disappointment and a setback for the $209 million Spaceport in Sierra County.
Never out of the public eye for very long, former New Mexico Gov. and Spaceport America champion Bill Richardson is once again making headlines — and for all the wrong reasons. The Wall Street Journalreports:
A federal grand jury is investigating former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson over possible campaign-finance violations stemming from his 2008 presidential run, including allegations that he arranged for supporters to pay off a woman who planned to say they had engaged in an extramarital affair, according to people familiar with the inquiry.
Several of Mr. Richardson’s close associates have been granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for their testimony before the panel in Albuquerque, the people said. The panel is one of several grand juries in recent years to examine aspects of Mr. Richardson’s administration and campaigns….
The New York Times looks at how Spaceport America — launched by Gov. Bill Richardson in 2005 when New Mexico was flush with tax revenues — is faring today amid an economic downturn and years of delay in launching commercial suborbital spaceflights.
Governor Susana Martinez issued the following statement following Senator Harrison Schmittâ€™s decision to withdraw his nomination to serve as the Stateâ€™s Secretary of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources:
â€œSenator Schmitt is a former NASA astronaut who underwent a complete background check by the Department of Public Safety as part of his nomination process.
â€œSenator Schmitt was willing to allow a private investigator access to his personal information, but he was not willing to waive that investigatorâ€™s liability for any improper actions or use of that information. While one can understand Senator Schmittâ€™s concerns, complying with the Legislatureâ€™s request is necessary to restore public confidence in state government. Thatâ€™s why I am requiring all of my cabinet secretary designees to comply with that request and this has led to Senator Schmitt withdrawing his nomination.
â€œI wish Senator Schmitt the best in his future endeavors and I will work swiftly to find a qualified replacement to lead New Mexicoâ€™s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.â€
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced a new grant program designed to fund projects that develop and expand commercial space transportation infrastructure.Â The Space Transportation Infrastructure Matching Grants will be awarded to four separate projects located in Alaska, California, Florida, and New Mexico.
NMPolitics.net has asked New Mexico’s gubernatorial candidates about continued support for Spaceport America. The state-funded facility, now under construction in the desert near Las Cruces, was championed by outgoing Gov. Bill Richardson and will be a main launch site for suborbital space tourism flights for Virgin Galactic.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Susana Martinez says the state has already spent lots of money on Spaceport America and can no longer be its â€œmajor financer,â€ while Democratic opponent Diane Denish says she is a supporter of the spaceport but didnâ€™t directly answer a question about the projectâ€™s funding.
AP: Bill Richardson Cleared in Fed’s Probe Associated Press
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and former high-ranking members of his administration won’t be criminally charged in a yearlong federal investigation into pay-to-play allegations involving one of the Democratic governor’s large political donors, someone familiar with the case said.