New Mexico spaceport sets sights on new customers

AP News
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Posted: Nov 23, 2014 12:41 AM
New Mexico spaceport sets sights on new customers

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The scramble to get everything ready for the launch of the world's first commercial flights from Spaceport America came to a screeching halt nearly a month ago when Virgin Galactic's spaceship broke up over the California desert during a test flight.

There was heartbreak, but now the New Mexico Spaceport Authority is scrambling again. This time, the focus is on drawing more tenants to the nearly quarter-billion-dollar spaceport and maintaining support among state lawmakers.

Christine Anderson, the authority's executive director, learned this week she might have to do that one legislator at a time.

Anderson was called out by Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, for handing members of an interim legislative finance committee a presentation filled mostly with photographs. Lundstrom and other lawmakers wanted hard numbers and more details about what plan the authority has to get past the Virgin Galactic mishap and get the taxpayer-financed spaceport off the ground.

"It just made all of us look like idiots, like we don't do our homework," Anderson said. "That's not the case whatsoever."

Anderson pointed to a meeting just a month earlier with the same committee in which she testified for six hours about what the spaceport authority has done, how much money it has spent and on what projects, how much revenue it's likely to bring and what needs to be done going forward.

The testimony covered everything from the salaries and benefits of spaceport employees to how much is spent to keep the lights on at the futuristic building in southern New Mexico.

"It was all in there," Anderson said.

Lundstrom didn't hear any of it. She wasn't at that meeting and neither were dozens of other legislators.

Anderson acknowledged Friday that the spaceport authority needs to do a better job of getting its message across to each lawmaker, and one of the important parts will be fostering more cooperation with business leaders to "beat the bushes" as the search continues for tenants.

The authority's board of directors is planning another meeting before the year's end to discuss updates to its business plan, and Anderson has called for meetings with state economic development officials to enlist their help in drawing in more business.

Spaceport America's anchor tenant is Virgin Galactic. With flights delayed indefinitely, the state stands to lose about $1.7 million a year.

Anderson expects to erase some of the deficit with revenue from other events, including fashion and auto photo shoots and more rocket launches by companies such as UP Aerospace.

According to spaceport projections, more money will come from lease and user fees related to the testing scheduled to begin next spring for a reusable rocket being developed by Elon Musk's SpaceX.

SpaceX has spent $2 million in infrastructure improvements at spaceport, and Virgin Galactic is forecast to spend more than $3 million building out the main hangar and terminal that has become the face of the spaceport.

Spaceport officials told lawmakers this week that one of the challenges in courting new tenants is that many are years away from becoming operational. That won't help fill the temporary void left by Virgin's delay.

Still, Lundstrom and other lawmakers said they want to see the spaceport succeed because of the implications that would have for New Mexico and the burgeoning commercial space industry.

For Anderson, who retired from the Air Force after 30 years of civilian service, support for Spaceport America doesn't involve politics.

"It's more of a gut feeling: Do I believe in space? Do I believe in this project?" she said. "Even if you don't, let's try to make it successful because we've already committed."