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Failure to launch? Spaceport America takes a couple of hits

By   /   February 10, 2014  /   No Comments

BATTLING THE CRITICS: Spaceport America, the $212-million taxpayer-funded project in southern New Mexico, received criticism on two different fronts this week.

BATTLING THE CRITICS: Spaceport America, the $212-million taxpayer-funded project in southern New Mexico, received criticism on two different fronts this week.

 

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. — It’s been a rough time for Spaceport America.

The venture built with $212 million in state taxpayer money is drawing heat from one lawmaker who doesn’t like how officials are spending money they’ve received from two southern New Mexico counties. On top of that, a just-released book questions whether Spaceport’s anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic , will get off the ground.

But the executive director of Spaceport America says she’s as confident as ever that commercial space technology, Virgin Galactic and Spaceport America itself will thrive.

“I spent 30 years in the Air Force and a lot of that time was spent in space technology and space systems,” Christine Anderson told New Mexico Watchdog. “It is rocket science, and it takes a while. People always like to say, ‘Here’s the date, you gotta hit that date.’ Well, you’re ready when you’ve done all the testing and in this particular case, you really want to get it right because you’ve got commercial passengers flying.”

But in a biography of Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, British journalist Tom Bower expresses doubt whether the enterprise will launch passengers into suborbital space.

“It’s clear that (Branson) launched Virgin Galactic without remotely understanding the complexity of the technical challenges involved and, probably, still doesn’t,” Bower wrote, claiming that Branson’s outfit hasn’t been able to build a rocket powerful enough to get the job done.

Bower also accuses Branson of lacking a coherent business model.

Virgin Galactic has yet to lift off from the spaceport and has delayed its inaugural launch at least four times.

George Whitesides, CEO at Virgin Galactic, disputed all that in a letter in the Sunday Times of London, which published an excerpt of Bower’s book.

“Tom Bower’s claims in extracts from his new book on Richard Branson that Virgin Galactic has ‘no license’ and ‘no rocket’ to go to space misrepresent the facts and use old information to create a story,” Whitesides wrote. “Indeed the recent progress of the Galactic (program), including the latest rocket powered flight, renders Bower’s main claims false.”

Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant at Spaceport America and is lining up well-heeled customers to pay $250,000 each to take part in suborbital launches. Under the terms of Virgin’s lease, Spaceport America will receive $25,000-$75,000 per launch. Early in the project, Branson predicted a couple of launches per week, with the number rising to 700 per year by 2015.

But it’s 2014 and no initial launch date has been set.

“No, I’m not discouraged (by the delays),” Spaceport American’s Anderson said. “We’re ready for them … We’ll have front row seats right here in New Mexico, and I think we are getting close. I don’t have a date, and they probably don’t have an exact date.”

State Sen. Lee Cotter, R-Las Cruces, meanwhile, has introduced a bill challenging how tax money is being spent on the project.

Cotter said he is angry that left over tax dollars from Doña Ana and Sierra counties are being used to pay for operations at the spaceport instead of retiring the debt on the bonds the counties put up on behalf of the project.

“We’re looking out for Doña Ana and Sierra County taxpayers,” Cotter told New Mexico Watchdog. “Is this a Doña Ana and Sierra County Spaceport? We’ve paid about one-third of the construction costs already,” pointing to $76.4 million in bonds and a reserve fund. “Taxpayers didn’t approve it … We’ve run around the legislative process.”

But Anderson said the deal was approved through a process that took seven months and received the OK from the New Mexico Finance Authority, the Spaceport Authority Board and the tax district board comprised of elected officials in Sierra and Doña Ana counties.

“Wanting to pay off the bonds sooner, I agree with that at some point in time but right now, that money is really important to keeping our lights on, literally,” Anderson said.

Nonetheless, Cotter’s Senate Bill 172 passed through the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee on Feb. 3 in a 7-3 vote and is heading to the Senate Finance Committee.

“I’m an avid supporter (of Spaceport America),” Cotter said. “It will be successful … I just don’t like dishonesty.”

Anderson said the money is essential “because our revenue stream isn’t flowing at the rate (we’d like) because our customers aren’t quite flying at the pace that we thought they would be … It’s just a critical time.”

Despite the recent problems, Anderson points to another Spaceport tenant, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, that is on the verge of flight testing for its reusable rocket program, something Anderson describes as “the holy grail of vertical launch.”

SpaceX signed a three-year lease last May in its efforts to get a rocket to return to the launch pad intact for a vertical landing. Most rockets burn up on re-entry in the Earth’s atmosphere.

But, just like Virgin Galactic, SpaceX has not announced a launch date.

“It’s hard to pinpoint a date but I’d say, the next couple months,” Anderson said.

“I just think people have to hang in there,” she said. “It takes a while. Commercial space is a new industry … but it’s going to happen. My hat’s off to — I’m a taxpayer too — the people of New Mexico to take this leap and build a commercial spaceport here and I think it’s going to pay off.”

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

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Since 2010, Rob Nikolewski has covered New Mexico politics and investigated fraud, waste and abuse in government. He also writes an opinion column in the Sunday editions of the Santa Fe New Mexican. Rob joined New Mexico Watchdog after 20 years in television as a sports anchor and reporter. He anchored at MSNBC, New York City, Boston, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Reno and Boise, winning three regional Emmy awards along the way. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, a master's in public administration from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and a bachelor's degree in journalism from Trinity University in San Antonio.