Cautious optimism about Spaceport America

COMMENTARY: I wasn’t expecting to find positive news when I began my journalistic investigation of Spaceport America in March. The delays in getting Virgin Galactic’s customers into space and other problems had built a public perception that the project may be a boondoggle.

Heath Haussamen

Heath Haussamen

The situation that sparked my investigation heightened my skepticism. Two spaceport staffers called me, said they wanted to answer my questions, and then wouldn’t answer questions about finances. Red flag raised. Public records requests filed.

But as I dissected the spaceport’s claim that it was having a positive impact on New Mexico’s economy, I discovered reason for optimism. Economists were impressed. The spaceport has signed leases with four companies besides Virgin Galactic and held events like the Spaceport America Cup, a rocket-launching competition that brought 1,100 college students to southern New Mexico in June.

Kevin Boberg, New Mexico State University’s vice president for economic development, said Spaceport America appears “to be on course to begin realizing some of the aspirations folks had so many years ago.”

As a native New Mexican who’s raising my daughter here, I want the spaceport to succeed. We must diversify and grow our economy. Our children need more in-state opportunities.

But let’s be clear about a couple of things: The public’s investment of more than $220 million in the spaceport hasn’t yet created the 5,000 jobs officials promised a decade ago. I also found serious transparency issues that raise questions about how the spaceport operates.

You can find the results of my investigation online at NMPolitics.net. Give it a read.

In short, the spaceport may be on the verge of becoming a transformative force in our economy. It may not. Here are some things to consider:

• New Mexico had a jumpstart in the commercial space race a decade ago. We’ve lost some of that competitive advantage as other states have invested big. But we’re still in the game.

• The spaceport is operating with more money from companies that pay to use the facility (an estimated $4.5 million this fiscal year) than public money (about $1.2 million). That’s encouraging.

• But the spaceport isn’t sharing much about its incoming money. Its staff violated state transparency laws several times during my investigation. The spaceport wants to hide rent and other information about companies doing business there. That’s not encouraging. The public shouldn’t trust the spaceport without financial transparency. I won’t. As Lt. Gov. John Sanchez, a non-voting member of the spaceport’s board, put it, “…the financial viability of Spaceport America is the business of every New Mexican.”

• There’s no certainty Virgin Galactic will ever fly customers into space from New Mexico, but the company appears to be closer than it’s ever been. Such flights would bring new tech jobs here and spark tourism with high-dollar astronauts visiting for days at a time. I don’t know if Virgin Galactic will succeed. But I am convinced people are working hard to make it happen.

• While four other space companies have leases at the spaceport, Virgin Galactic is the biggie. A Virgin Galactic failure would be a huge blow to the spaceport’s operating budget and public support for the project.

• Building additional runways, hangars and other infrastructure could attract more companies. But I don’t expect another big public investment unless Virgin Galactic gets into space. That promise led to New Mexico’s initial spending on the spaceport.

Today there’s evidence that our investment is producing some results. If Virgin Galactic succeeds, the returns could grow. Let’s see how it goes.

Heath Haussamen is NMPolitics.net’s editor and publisher. Agree with his opinion? Disagree? We welcome your views. Learn about submitting your own commentary here.

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