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Spaceport champions are gone

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New governor appears disinterested in project

By Jay Miller

New Mexico’s spaceport was not conceived as an operation to take rich people into space.
The Las Cruces community and New Mexico State University began working more than 20 years ago to create a commercial spaceport that would take advantage of the area’s many benefits.
Those advantages included good weather, high elevation, clear airspace, a strong NMSU science department and the proximity to White Sands Missile Range.
The purpose of building a spaceport was to get a jump on the rest of the nation and world in building a commercial space industry that would bring business and jobs to the area.
NMSU’s Garrey Carruthers was governor at the time. He supported the idea enthusiastically. Gov. Bruce King followed him and also backed the effort.
Then came Gov. Gary Johnson who let the idea wither, partly because the commercial space industry was not moving as fast as had been expected.
When Gov. Bill Richardson took over in 2003, he was enchanted with the idea.  He began by getting a $132 million appropriation to build a spaceport.
Later that year, he talked Dr. Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize Foundation, to base his competitions at the spaceport as soon as it was built.
The first big X Prize competition was a $10 million award to the first company that could fly to the edge of space twice within two weeks.
Burt Rutan and Paul Allen’s Scaled Composites company won that contest with Spaceship One, flying out of Edwards Air Force Base in California..
Quickly, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic signed a contract with Scaled Composites to build Spaceship Two to fly several passengers at a time into space for $200,000 apiece.
And just as quickly, Richardson started working on Branson to base Virgin Galactic out of our spaceport.
Branson agreed and made a grand announcement, along with Richardson and film star Victoria Principal, who plunked down her $200,000 for a seat on the first flight.
But Branson wouldn’t sign a contract to be the anchor tenant until Dona Ana County voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax to help support the spaceport.
Branson wanted to be as sure as possible, considering New Mexico’s political vagaries, that we’d carry out our end of the deal.
On Dec. 31, 2008, Branson signed a 20-year lease. He may not be too happy he did it now that this governor is saying she wants private money to finish the spaceport.
That sounds like a kiss of death.  What company is going to sink its money into an unproven spaceport?
Private money doesn’t finance commercial airports. Airlines pay money to lease space but they don’t own the airports. So why should we expect private investment in a spaceport?
Any aerospace company, including Virgin Galactic, is putting its money into getting its rockets off the ground. The amount Martinez wants might be pocket change to Branson but he didn’t become a billionaire by making investments he doesn’t have to make.
At least five other states have spaceport licenses and would love to lure Branson their way. And Branson isn’t limited to the United States.
He’s based in London and is closer to European countries and the United Arab Emirates that are very much in the ball game.
Just as the discouraging film industry news out of New Mexico is going global, so is the spaceport news.
A lengthy Feb. 23 New York Times article spells out our new governor’s disinterest in spending the little bit of extra money necessary to finish off the Spaceport America facility.
Gov. Martinez says she wants to encourage business in New Mexico by easing the regulatory climate on them.  But the spaceport and film industry are two major, clean industries that she appears to be chasing away for some reason.
The spaceport has several other tenants, some of which are currently conducting test firings of the type originally envisioned. But they are small potatoes compared to Virgin Galactic.
We’re fortunate for the publicity boost this lucky find gave us.

Jay Miller
insidethecapitol
@hotmail.com