It’s been a long time coming. Nearly 14 years have passed, in fact, since Sir Richard Branson and former Gov. Bill Richardson announced plans to build the world’s first commercial spacecraft launch and landing facility in New Mexico.
And Virgin Galactic still isn’t quite ready, but Spaceport America says Branson’s company is closer than ever to sending paying customers into space — projecting the first flight will happen by summer.
There have been long delays, but given that expected timeline, Spaceport America CEO Dan Hicks said the time is now to increase staff and boost infrastructure so the port is ready when the day comes. He made that case at the Roundhouse last week, asking legislators to draw on the state’s oil and gas windfall to approve a budget increase.
“This window of opportunity is going to happen only once where we’re able to bring in more companies and more businesses,” Hicks said in an interview. “Now we’re really blessed as a state. We have the funding to really grow other sectors.”
Though Virgin’s big-ticket item has yet to launch, there is already plenty of activity at the spaceport, which the state built south of Truth or Consequences at a cost of $218.5 million. While Virgin conducts test flights, the facility has engaged with a number of other tenants, including Boeing, EXOS Aerospace and SpinLaunch.
That has helped increase the total number of spaceport-related jobs to around 250 from 50 in four years. Virgin’s decision to move more staff to the area — announced in May at a splashy news conference that included Branson and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham — also has helped. The company now employs 140 people living in Southern New Mexico, compared with 40 at this time last year.
If the spaceport were to have only Virgin as a tenant, it likely could fund its operations through its own revenue, Hicks said. But he said it needs more state funding in order to provide for its other tenants and to continue expanding.
As a result, he’s asking for $3.6 million from the state’s general fund for the next fiscal year, a more than threefold increase from $1 million in the current year.
That would allow the port to increase its full-time staff from 32 employees to 40, which Hicks said would help his operation manage the spaceport’s vertical and horizontal launch sites.
“Right now, I cannot support Virgin’s flights and also support the vertical launch area at the same time,” Hicks said.
The port also is asking for a $57 million appropriation for capital outlay projects, which would pay for a welcome center, an IT facility, and payload and vehicle processing facilities for companies using the spaceport.
“All of them have a need for the New Mexico Spaceport Authority to have a processing facility,” Hicks said. “But if I were to go to Virgin and say, ‘OK, you want to use something like that, well you pay for it,’ that just isn’t going to happen.”
Not all state legislators are on board with Hicks’ budgetary approach, however.
“I am a little bit concerned about what that general fund ask is,” Rep. Patricia Lundstrom , D-Gallup, told Hicks during a legislative committee meeting last week. “I’m going to lay that out there — I think that’s pretty high.”
Lundstrom, vice chairwoman of the Legislative Finance Committee, said she was under the impression that the spaceport was aiming to become self-sufficient, using the revenue it receives from its tenants — rather than from the state — for its operations.
“So, when I see the big capital outlay request also, it causes pause for me,” she said. “I’d always thought we were going to be moving more as an enterprise and as self-support for this operation.”
Hicks said that isn’t the business model he’s pursuing — in fact, he wants the percentage of his budget supplied by the state to actually increase.
“Here in New Mexico, there are thoughts out there that say, ‘Oh wait, you should be totally self-sufficient. Virgin should be paying for everything.’ ” Hicks said. “That isn’t realistic.”
He said other spaceports, in Florida and Virginia for example, receive millions in government funding so they can build infrastructure and attract jobs. New airports have received such funding, too, he pointed out.
“There’s not an airport in any city that is 100 percent sustainable and says, ‘Charge your customers,’ ” he said. “Spaceports are no different, particularly now with companies bringing new technologies into existence.”
Spaceport America projects it will take in around $10 million in revenue from its own operations next fiscal year. That would account for around 70 percent of its total revenue, with about 30 percent coming from state funding if lawmakers grant Hicks’ budget request.
Hicks wants the state’s portion to ultimately grow to around 40 percent of its budget.
Yet more than any pushback over this year’s budget request, the biggest criticism of the spaceport historically has been around the seemingly never-ending delay in actually launching space tourism flights.
Virgin Galactic President and CEO George Whitesides said in 2011 that the rough goal for the first commercial flight was 12 to 18 months from then.
Clearly, the company hasn’t held to that timeline. And it suffered a big setback in 2014, when its first experimental craft broke apart during a test flight, killing the co-pilot.
Accordingly, the project has had to endure news headlines such as this one from Reuters: “Spaceport delays prompt some impatience in New Mexico” and, worse, the Atlantic’s 2018 piece titled “New Mexico’s Sad Bet on Space Exploration.”
Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said it’s important to remember the 2014 incident had a big impact on the timeline and “probably set them back three to five years.” He also said the state has too much skin in the game to turn back now.
“We’re at midstream with this one and we’ve got too much invested to say we’re not going to do any more with it,” he said.
Smith, D-Deming, added he would support the spaceport’s budget increase request, pointing out that a $3.6 million general fund allocation would be tiny in the grand scheme of a state budget surpassing $7 billion.
“I’m going to try and help that out,” he said.
When asked about the criticism over the delays, Hicks acknowledged the spaceport didn’t do the best job of setting and managing expectations at the outset, or of helping the public understand how difficult it is to navigate space.
“We put in infrastructure that is the envy of the world right now,” he said. “We’re in a perfect position, but it does take a long time to get into that harsh environment.
“Because we had the courage to put ourselves out there as a state,” he added, “now is the opportunity to reap the benefit.”