The new executive director of Spaceport America said the facility is primed to become a major economic development source for the state, and not just because billionaire Richard Branson has made a civilian suborbital sojourn from Southern New Mexico.
Scott McLaughlin said the next flights are going to draw significant interest as well, because many will want to be part of the experience as spectators.
“People are going to fly from New Mexico, and people right below are going to watch,” McLaughlin told lawmakers on the interim Finance Authority Oversight Committee Tuesday. “They’re going to drive out to Spaceport New Mexico to watch.”
That, in turn, will fuel money into the nearby communities, he said.
Much depends on the spaceport’s future relationship with Branson’s Virgin Galactic company, which plans to use its infrastructure for future forays to the edge of space.
McLaughlin said the spaceport will attract more clients to its site as space travel becomes, as he put it, “a taxi service. That really is what commercial space is — a move away from civil space and military space into a pure commercial market.”
Still, even space age dreams require funding, and McLaughlin said the spaceport, which operates on a roughly $10 million annual budget, needs some financial help.
The spaceport faces a roughly $2 million deficit as it deals with the fallout from an investigation into whether its previous executive director, Dan Hicks, misused funds, including gross receipts tax revenue, to operate the facility.
Excess money from those gross receipts tax funds helped support those annual operations, but McLaughlin said that is not an option now. He asked lawmakers help fill the gap.
“You need $2 million in your budget. I’ll support that,” said Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, who praised McLaughlin for coming in front of the committee when previous directors attempted to avoid it.
Cervantes, like other lawmakers on the committee, wanted more details on how the spaceport is benefiting the state and local economies.
The spaceport is working on a master plan that will include an economic development analysis, McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin, who grew up in Las Cruces, recently took over as the spaceport’s executive director after Hicks was fired for mismanagement and possible ethical and legal breaches.
In November, State Auditor Brian Colón released a damning report, in which Hicks is accused of misusing funds and potentially violated laws and ethics codes. Colón has referred the report to the state Attorney General’s Office.
Matt Baca, spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, wrote in an email Tuesday, “Our office has reviewed the financial oversight concerns raised under the previous director and has directed the Spaceport Authority to strengthen its governance and oversight structures to ensure the appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.
In an email Wednesday, he wrote the AG’s Office had not reached a conclusion on whether a crime was committed.
McLaughlin, previously the spaceport’s business development director, touted its deal with nearby White Sands Missile Range.
Military leaders have agreed to let the spaceport use White Sands’ 6,000 square miles of restricted airspace, giving it a free and hard-to-find-elsewhere ability to launch into space, McLaughlin said.
Of the nine spaceports in the country, New Mexico’s is one of four that offer both horizontal and vertical launching.
Over the years, New Mexico paid roughly two-thirds of the $200 million-plus in construction costs for the facility. The rest was covered by a gross receipts tax approved by Sierra and Doña Ana counties.
Cervantes said those county taxpayers should not be footing the bill to keep the spaceport in operation any longer.
Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, said she wants the spaceport to do more to employ and involve New Mexicans — including getting them into orbit.
“Tickets to fly are quite expensive, and the last thing we want to do is build something that has a New Mexico logo on it and know that New Mexicans don’t have a seat on the table,” she said. “That’s not good.”
She wondered if the state could negotiate a free ride or two for New Mexicans in future citizen flights.
“If we have the desire to do it, then just like how we work out with other things, we can do it,” she said.