January 26, 2006

New Mexico gov. says spaceport to take flight

By Jim Christie

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson
said on Thursday a plan to spend $100 million in state money to
build a facility to launch tourists into space will take
flight, despite objections in the state legislature.

Richardson, a Democrat considered a potential presidential
contender, wants to help British entrepreneur Richard Branson's
Virgin Galactic build a one-of-its-kind commercial spaceport
near a small town neighboring the White Sands Missile Range.

New Mexico can afford to foot the bill for the project,
Richardson said, because the state will have a budget surplus
of about $500 million.

But some lawmakers question the need for the spaceport when
U.S. Air Force bases in the state are underused or slated to be
decommissioned. Others argue that better-than-expected state
revenues collected from royalties and taxes on natural gas and
oil production should not be used to pay for the project.

Richardson said a spaceport would put New Mexico in the
international spotlight, create more than 5,000 high-paying
jobs and lure high-technology firms to the state.

"This is not just rich people going into space," Richardson
said. "We're using the philosophy that if we build it, they
will come, and already four companies have committed."

The governor predicted more legislators would get behind
the project in the current legislative session.

"The spaceport represents the future of economic
development in southern New Mexico," he added. "It will be
approved mainly because of the enormous potential."

Richardson's economic policies and his service in the
Clinton administration could help him if he runs for president,
as many Democrats expect he will, said Darry Sragow, a
political strategist who has worked for Democratic presidential
candidates in California.

A former congressman, ambassador to the United Nations and
U.S. secretary of energy who assists White House diplomacy
toward North Korea, Richardson said he is focused on the
legislative session and winning re-election later this year.