Space Tourism is Going to Be Real Awesome Some Day…

Video Caption: Want to be an astronaut when you grow up? Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s Chief Astronaut Instructor, is on hand to give you a crash course in space travel and explain how soon you can expect to be on Mars.

Spaceport America Seeks More Tax Dollars

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

With Virgin Galactic’s ‘big move” of its SpaceShipTwo to New Mexico expected to occur sometime in 2018, Spaceport America officials say they need taxpayers to ante up more money.

Dan Hicks, Spaceport America CEO, told attendees at the Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce 2017 Space Update Luncheon on Thursday that more spaceports are poised to enter the commercial space industry, with 10 other licensed spaceports operating and an additional nine applications pending with the Federal Aviation Administration. And, with Virgin Galactic set to begin manned flights as soon as next year, more funding is needed to accommodate the increased traffic expected to follow, he said.

Hicks said he will seek an additional $600,000 from the Legislature to increase staff levels and continue with infrastructure improvements. At a cost of nearly $220 million, the taxpayer-financed Spaceport America opened in 2011. At the time, officials envisioned a new commercial space economy that would transform southern New Mexico. That economy has yet to come to fruition, but officials are hopeful.

The funding is necessary to stay on par with other spaceports around the country, Hicks said. With 16 people currently on the Spaceport America staff, Hicks hopes to increase that number to 26 “very quickly” to accommodate Virgin Galactic’s planned move to New Mexico….

New Mexico’s Spaceport America has a $6.1 million operating budget with a current state appropriation of $375,000 with $600,000 in local gross receipts taxes generated solely from Doña Ana and Sierra counties. Customer revenue generates $2.1 million.

Virgin Galactic Promises New Mexico that 2018 will be the Year

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

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Galactic Vice President Richard DalBello was in Sante Fe, NM on Wednesday with an optimistic message about the company’s plans to fly tourists to space from the state-owned Spaceport America.

“We think we’re at the beginning of a very exciting period,” he told a legislative committee in Santa Fe. “We know you’ve waited a long time and we are coming.”

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FastFacts: Public-Sector Financial Support for Richard Branson’s Space Companies

Four big thumbs up from Richard Branson and then New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson at the Spaceport America runway dedication in 2010. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

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
YEARGOVERNMENT
AMOUNT (MILLIONS)
PURPOSE
2006New Mexico~$225 Custom built spaceport named Spaceport America constructed on 18,000 acres of land — Virgin Galactic signed 20 year lease to serve as anchor tenant
2009Abu Dhabi $280Government-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)
2011 Abu Dhabi $110Aabar Investments increased share of Virgin Galactic to 37.6 percent
2017Saudi Arabia$1,000Under 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
 TOTAL: $1,615
 Future Saudi Arabia $480PIC has an option to invest nearly a half-billion more in Virgin Group space services
 TOTAL:$2,095

Spaceport America Southern Road Project Moves Forward

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

Doña Ana County commissioners have selected a contractor to pave a dirt road to provide easier access to Spaceport America from Las Cruces and other points to the south of the facility.

County staff said the top bidder in a recent procurement process was Mountain States Construction — and county commissioners selected the company in a 4-1 vote.

The move allows Interim County Manager Chuck McMahon to negotiate a contract to build the 23.5-mile road, which could cost up to $15.2 million….

The New Mexico Spaceport Authority only has about $13 million to $13.6 million to build the road on hand because of some expenditures already tied to the road project, said Dan Hicks, NMSA executive director.

But McMahon said there’s a chance the New Mexico Department of Transportation will pitch in additional revenue to reach the $15.2 million mark. That would allow for the construction of a better road, county administrators said.

But even if the extra money doesn’t come through, the road project still would entail “hot mix” asphalt pavement, a “geotextile” fabric used to add structural stability to the road, two arroyo crossings and fencing, according to county documents. It would have a smaller “base course” — or roadway foundation — than if the extra funding is granted.

County officials declined to put any additional money into the road project to reach the $15.2 million mark, saying they would prefer to have the state provide it.

County Commissioner John Vasquez voted against funding the road upgrade, saying that he had difficulty asking taxpayers to spend more on Spaceport America. County residents voted to increase a tax on themselves to help pay for the $225 million project.

Getting to Spaceport America from Las Cruces currently requires driving north of the facility to Truth or Consequences and then turning around and traveling south. The paved road will significantly reduce travel time.

State-of-the-Art SRB Development & Manufacturing Facility at Spaceport America

SpaceLoft Rocket Motor Qualification Static Test Conducted Oct. 9, 2017 at the Space Propulsion Center (SPC), Spaceport America, New Mexico. (Credit: UP Aerospace)

HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo., Oct. 24, 2017 (UP Aerospace PR) — UP Aerospace Inc. and Cesaroni Aerospace teamed to create a state-of-the-art solid rocket motor manufacturing and test facility at Spaceport America, New Mexico.

The project was completed in under one year with the culmination of three full-scale SpaceLoft solid rocket motor static test firings. The tests were conducted to verify new high-performance motor casing and insulation manufacturing techniques, and validate the automated, remotely controlled propellant mix, and cast processing facilities.

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No End in Sight for Spaceport America Tax

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

The tax increase that Sierra County voters approved in 2008 to support the construction of Spaceport America has no expiration date and no restrictions on the use of excess revenues that might be collected each year, according to the ordinance passed by county commissioners.

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NASA Space Act Agreements with Virgin Galactic, Moon Express, NanoRacks and More

NASA has released a document listing the 1,206 active Space Act Agreements  (SAAs) the agency has with commercial companies, non-profit organizations and state and local governments.

From that list, I’ve extracted agreements with individual companies. Below you will find tables listing SAAs that NASA has signed with Virgin Group companies, Moon Express and NanoRacks. There is also a fourth table that has SAAs with a number of companies and organizations that we follow on Parabolic Arc.

SAAs come in three varieties: reimburseable, non-reimburseable and funded. Under reimburseable agreements, a company or organization will pay NASA for its services. No money exchanges hands under non-reimburseable agrements. And under funded agreements, NASA pays the company to perform work or provide services. (The space agency made substantial use of SAA’s in the Commercial Crew Program.)

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Dona Ana County Residents Could End Up Paying for Spaceport Indefinitely

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

The tax that residents of Dona Ana County voted to impose upon themselves to help fund the development of Spaceport America has no expiration date, meaning it could continue indefinitely after bonds used to pay for the construction are paid off in 2028, according to a review by KRWG TV/Radio.

Critics of the spaceport have said the .25 cent increase in the gross receipts tax should end after the construction bonds are paid off. They have also objected to the use of taxes in excess of what is needed to pay off the bonds to plug holes in the spaceport’s budget. They want the money to be used to pay off the bonds early.

KRWG’s Fred Martino did something that apparently had not occurred to anyone: he dug up the 2007 ordinance that county commissioners approved for the tax. The document has no expiration date and no restrictions on using revenues for spaceport operations.

To change the situation, county commissioners would need to pass an ordinance ending the tax and restricting the use of surplus tax revenues for operations.

New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) CEO Dan Hicks said he needs the tax to continue so the authority will have funding to expand the spaceport and attract new tenants to it. Spaceport America is in stiff competition with other spaceports around the country, he said.

NMSA has struggled financially due to years of delays by anchor tenant Virgin Galactic in flying suborbital space tourist flights from the southern New Mexico facility.

Sierra County voters also approved a similar tax increase to help pay for the spaceport.

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Investigative Series on Spaceport America Ends With a Whimper

SpaceShipTwo glides over the Mojave Desert after being released from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship. (Credit; Virgin Galactic)

The fifth and final installment of NMPolitics.net’s series on Spaceport America was published today: After years of delays, Virgin Galactic prepares for spaceflights from NM

The story mostly features interviews with Virgin Galactic officials outlining their plans to start commercial operations from New Mexico. There will be a series of additional flight tests in Mojave, Calif., and then SpaceShipTwo will move down to Spaceport America for some additional tests before the start of commercial flights. Richard Branson has been prediction ticket holders will start flying in 2018.

In other words, nothing we haven’t been hearing for years and years, albeit with a shiny new set of dates.

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How Much Secrecy Does Spaceport America Need?

Richard Branson and his children hang out with Project Bandaloop dancers during the dedication of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space facility. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

The fourth installment of NMPolitics.net’s five-part series on Spaceport America was published today. How much secrecy does Spaceport America need?

Picking up on a theme covered in the third installment, this story details the lengths to which Spaceport America officials have gone to keep secret details of deals they have concluded with tenants.

“If you were to ask them would they want their leases out in the public they would say no,” [New Mexico Spaceport Authority CEO Dan] Hicks said. “…We just don’t want to have additional burdens on them or scrutiny on them.”

That’s a controversial stance in a poor state that has invested more than $220 million in Spaceport America – a state whose law intends that the public be given access to “the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government,” which it calls “an essential function of a representative government.”

There’s a real tension created by the public/private partnership that is the spaceport. On one hand, greater secrecy may help attract companies that demand it, and with them may come good-paying jobs the state needs. On the other hand is the principle that opening the spaceport’s finances builds accountability and public trust that is key to winning the government funding on which the spaceport also depends.

Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, sponsored legislation on behalf of the spaceport earlier this year that would have let the agency keep rent payments, trade secrets and other information secret. One committee approved the bill, but then it died.

These days Papen says she supports withholding company trade secrets from the public. But she no longer backs secrecy for money coming into the spaceport from private companies.

The spaceport authority didn’t always keep agreement terms secret. For example, Virgin Galactic’s development and lease agreements were released years ago without anything being redacted.

The situation is different at the Mojave Air and Space Port, which is a public general aviation airport run by an elected board. Lease agreements are included in board packets that are available to the public.

The fifth and final installment looking at anchor tenant Virgin Galactic’s preparations for space tourism flights from Spaceport America will be published on Friday.

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Spaceport America Not Very Transparent With Public

The Terminal Hangar Facility at Spaceport America will house Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: David Wilson, Spaceport America)

The third installment of NMPolitics.net’s report on Spaceport America was published today: Transparency problems plague Spaceport America. The story details the problems the author has experienced getting information about Spaceport America’s operations from the New Mexico Spaceport Authority.

Spaceport America is a publicly owned government entity, so the law requires its financial and other dealings to be open to the public, with few exceptions.

And yet in 2017 the N.M. Spaceport Authority, the state agency that runs the spaceport, has violated the state’s transparency laws several times in response to requests for documents filed by NMPolitics.net, a citizen from Truth or Consequences, and a reporter with KTSM-TV in El Paso. Those violations, in addition to other possible infractions, blocked or delayed public access to information about the spaceport….

The Spaceport Authority blacked out information in some lease agreements with aerospace companies it provided to NMPolitics.net, including rent and fee schedules. That was done to “honor the rights that New Mexican state law provides to innovators, developers and entrepreneurs who seek to move their operations to our state,” said Melissa Kemper Force, the agency’s general counsel.

The violations and possible violations of transparency laws started in March when I and Patrick Hayes, the KTSM-TV reporter, asked for copies of the spaceport’s lease agreements with aerospace companies. I paid the fee of nearly $300 for copies of the documents. Hayes asked to bring his own equipment to digitize the records himself for free, which the state Attorney General’s Office says is allowed.

The Spaceport Authority rejected Hayes’ request, leaving him only the option of paying the $1-per-page fee if he wanted copies.

The Mojave Air and Space Port is governed by a five-member board elected by the local population. Lease agreements are included as part of meeting agendas that are published on the spaceport’s website. The board approved an amendment to Virgin Galactic’s lease of a test site earlier this month. See pages 16-17 of the document below.

http://www.mojaveairport.com/uploads/5/7/8/9/57893503/08.01.17_packet.pdf

Spaceport America Risks Becoming Even Bigger Money Pit

The Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space terminal hangar facility (center), Spaceport Operations Center (Left) and “Spaceway”
(Runway) at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

The second installment of NMPolitics.net’s five-part series on Spaceport America dropped today. Funding woes could ‘cripple’ NM spaceport as other states invest in space race

This one deals with financing at Spaceport America. It requires a bit of understanding of the history of how it was funded.

So, here’s the back story: In 2007 and 2008, residents of Dona Ana and Sierra counties approved a quarter cent increase in the sales tax to help pay for the construction of Spaceport America, where billionaire Richard Branson plans to send rich people on suborbital joy rides.

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