Build A Spaceport, Wait For Reward
September 23, 2012

Spaceport America: Still Waiting For Promised Reward

April Flowers for — Your Universe Online

In the 1989 film classic, Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella is told, "If you build it, they will come." The developers of Spaceport America have been depending on that idea.

So far, it isn't working out.

With a $209 billion dollar tax-payer funded price tag, Spaceport America is a rather large gamble for the New Mexico Space Authority (NMSA), the organization who designed, built and will operate the world's first private space launch facility.

There has been a lot of hype. New Mexico Tourism Secretary Monique Jacobson compared the facility to Sydney's Opera House, and Virgin Galactic chairman Sir Richard Branson hinted he would start his new line of lifestyle hotels here. The small town of Truth or Consequences, about 25 miles away, has been anxiously awaiting the economic development this project was supposed to bring to the area.

Phase one of Spaceport America is nearing completion, however, and none of this has shown up.  The only hotel company that has moved into the area is a Holiday Inn Express in Truth or Consequences, and at least three other major players in the space industry have passed on developing anything on site.

Lagging development, competition from other states, and nine planned, (with ten more proposed), spaceports around the nation, the Spaceport America complex is definitely feeling the strain.

"Right now, the industry is not there to support it," Alex Ignatiev, a University of Houston physics professor and adviser to space companies, said of the list of planned and proposed spaceports across America.

Andrew Nelson, COO of XCOR Aerospace, disagrees, saying, "in the next couple to three years, there's going to be a demonstrative reduction in the cost to launch stuff ... so we are going to have a lot more people coming out of the woodwork."

Right now, the Spaceport has two rocket companies that send vertical payloads into space and Virgin Galactic, that says it has more than 500 wealthy adventurers signed up for $200,000-per-person spaceflights. Other major players in the privatization of space have passed on New Mexico.

XCOR Aerospace, manufacturer of reusable rocket engines for major aerospace contractors, has twice passed over New Mexico in favor of Texas and Florida. XCOR recently announced plans to locate its new Commercial Space Research and Development Center Headquarters in Midland, Texas.

RocketCrafters, Inc. has chosen Titusville, Florida, and SpaceX, a space tourism company, is looking to base a plant with $50 million a year in annual payroll in Brownsville, Texas.

Local officials blame legislators for the lack of new business.  Unlike Colorado, Texas, Florida and Virginia, New Mexico has refused to pass laws exempting spacecraft suppliers from liability for passengers should the spacecraft crash or blow up. New Mexico passed a law exempting Virgin Galactic from liability until 2018, but excluded parts suppliers. These informed consent laws are like those that exempt ski areas from lawsuits by skiers, who waive their rights for claims when they purchase a ski pass. Spaceport officials say that even if these laws were passed, the carriers and suppliers would not be exempt from damage on the ground, or in cases of gross negligence.

"The issue is informed consent legislation," said Truth or Consequences Mayor John Mulcahy. "We need to get that passed."

Companies are forthcoming that the liability laws have played a big part in their decision to go elsewhere, but also cite Spaceport America's remote location. The facility is 45 miles from Las Cruces and 200 miles from Albuquerque. They also say a failure to offer competitive incentives is a factor.

The only thing holding Spaceport America afloat right now is their contract with Virgin Galactic, which signed a 20-year lease to operate its commercial space tourism business from the site.   Over the next 20 years, VG's lease payments and user fees are expected to generate $250 million and more. The terms of the lease, and any penalties that Branson would incur if he were to withdraw, are not known, however. The facility was planned with the idea that they would have at least one more major tenant by 2016.

"We are so happy we have Virgin Galactic as anchors," said Christine Anderson, executive director of the New Mexico Space Authority, which is lobbying lawmakers to approve informed consent. "But we want to attract more tenants. ... I think this is really a critical piece of legislation that New Mexico has to have."

Nelson says XCOR hasn't ruled out one day flying the Lynx two-person spacecraft in New Mexico, but the legislature's wavering on liability exemptions sends a message that can't be ignored.

Branson has had to revise his estimate of a first manned flight and pushed it back to late 2013 at the earliest.

It was originally estimated that as many as 200,000 people a year would visit the facility.  Branson, speaking at a national hotel conference in 2011, said that he might put one of his still to be developed Virgin hotels in the area, but there has been no further word on that hotel or any others that cater to the space crowd.

There is a form of tourism so far, the bus "preview" tour. It takes off from Truth or Consequences and gives the rider a historical perspective on the area with visits to Elephant Butte Dam and the El Camino Real. Visitors are given tours of the two buildings that are complete, Virgin Galactic's "Gateway to Space" terminal and the Space Port Operations Center.

You can even stand on the "spaceway," the runway that will someday launch this new space age into orbit.

Ignatiev, believing it will be a minimum of 10 years before the space industry takes off, stated, "And I don't know how many states or commercial entities can sit around for 10 years and wait for business to show up. They are going to have a problem staying viable."