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.”

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Jens Gould covers politics for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He was a correspondent for Bloomberg News in Mexico City, a regular contributor for TIME in California, and produced the video series Bravery Tapes.

(10) comments

Steve Weinkle

Senator Smith is correct that the Virgin Galactic crash and death of the copilot was a "set back." Just wait until the first paying passenger is killed. Will that also be a "set back" justifying continued subsidy to the spaceport "becuase we have so much invested already"? Got to spill a little milk to help those space factories in California.

Dr. Michael Johnson

Just say "NO" to anymore tax money going there until Branson starts paying for things himself. We have enough wasted money into this white elephant with no return. He needs to start paying, and paying us back with a solid investment return.

Carlos Montoya

Hicks and Branson are the epitomy of Carpetbaggers! Who pays Hick's salary?? It sure shouldn't be the state!!

Richardson sold us out! I still have a problem swallowing the fact that after 218 million and no interest and 14 years in waiting, they ask for more, gratis!!

When I saw the picture of Grisham and Udall in May at the Spaceport scratching Branson's bottom, I puked! But that is politicians for you!!

Simply stated, they do not deserve anymore money! How in hades can they not be self-sufficient?? They need to be! Or sell the Spaceport to someone else and get our money back with interest!!

Senator Smith in my years of following you and your desire to save the taxpayers money, I am shocked at your position on this matter!! What did they promise you? Not a luxurious home at Martha's Vineyard!

We were all made fools by the thievery of Richardson! Our own Trump!

William Craig

As seen at this project has always had transparency issues — in 2018 the legislature gave them another $10 million and more secrecy via Senate Bill 98. The ¼-billion dollars from NM taxpayers over 1½ decades still isn't enough — now they need even more to clear 8 years worth of tumbleweeds?

Richardson and Branson have been comrades at the Council on Foreign Relations. Bill's other bud Jefe Epstein described himself as an "enthusiastic member" of the CFR. The NXIVM scandal involves Branson's private Virgin island 35 miles from Epstein's — make Sir Richie Rich pay.

Kim Audette

The Spaceport has failed its primary mission, to reduce poverty in the affected nearby towns. Poverty increased. 75% opioid addiction, 35% working poor, 44% child poverty, the states highest housing glut, because the poor cannot buy houses. After counting the elderly in poverty, the total disaffected by the Spaceport is 53%. "Maybe next year" has been Bransons mantra for 14 years, with a monstrous mortality and morbiddity rate. If the NM legislature continues to play Sugar Daddy to Virgin by failing the moral duty to alleviate poverty, then New Mexico's reputation for corruption will continue to be obvious to the world. That is our primary problem right now, there is no Amazing Accomplishment. There is only evidence of the most digusting kind of greed: stealing hope from the poor.

For the turnaround, the NM legislature must allocate at least 35% of any windfall tax profits to reducing the statistics of immoral demands upon the poor to fund Pie in the Sky projects. So, allocating funds to $pacePork needs at least 35% to go to alleviating 14 years of crushing poverty to improve the name to NM Spaceport.

Scott Smart

Greatest waste of taxpayers money in the history of the state. ..

Chris Mechels

Part of Bill Richardson's undying legacy of bad ideas. How did this dog survive the cuts during the recent, pre fracking, panic??? Having used up a pack of lies, they are inventing a whole new set, and adding a lot of new jobs it seems. New Mexico continues to amaze.

Barry Rabkin

I agree that it is unrealistic for the NM (or any Spaceport in any State) Spaceport to be self-sufficient. I want NM to continue to invest in the Spaceport. This is a new, and dangerous, industry and patience is required.

Barry Rabkin

I also wanted to thank President Kennedy for driving the US Space Program. Our country can not use "but what about the poor" to stop investments in space. And neither can our State: New Mexico has the land, the access to the skies, and the access to WSMR and other space-focused facilities (in California) to build a significant presence in commercial space initiatives.

Devin Bent

You don't throw good money after bad is actually a sound economic principle. I am disappointed that Smith, a supposed conservative, does in fact advocates exactly that -- throwing good money after bad. The Space Port is a money pit. It is time for it to become self-supporting.

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