LAS CRUCES — Some 15 months after the fatal crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo during a test flight in Mojave, California, the company that will eventually anchor Spaceport America is ready to unveil and name the next version of the vehicle that is expected to carry tourists to low-orbit from the facility in southern Sierra County, north of Las Cruces, built at a cost of roughly
$218.5 million of taxpayer-funded money.
The announcement, expected in mid-February, will see Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, inviting scientific heavyweights including Stephen Hawking to herald the company’s return to testing for commercial spaceflight tourism.
Meanwhile, Branson has recently announced his support for a yet-to-be-built spaceport in the United Kingdom, but that will not impact their use of the New Mexico spaceport as the base of operations for the fledgling space tourism industry in New Mexico.
Given the recent conversations about Virgin Galactic, we checked in with Christine Anderson, chief executive officer of Spaceport America, to see what we can expect during 2016 as the spaceport makes a full transition from development to daily operations and tries to expand revenue streams for the southern New Mexico spaceport.
Q. What does Richard Branson’s announcement about the United Kingdom spaceport mean for New Mexico?
A. Virgin Galactic has asked for a correction to the news article. It was simply a slip of the tongue. Virgin is completely committed to making Spaceport America its hub of operations. Mojave is its test site. As for the potential for a spaceport in the UK, we welcome more spaceports into the fold. Just like airports, in the future we will need multiple sites for a robust commercial space industry. Spaceport America met with UK representatives when they were performing their study and preparing their recommendations. We are always happy to work with other spaceports and potential spaceports.
Q. What will we see with regard to development on the southern access road to the spaceport in 2016?
A. Doña Ana County road engineers have completed the road design and it has been submitted to the BLM. The draft Environmental Assessment is being prepared by Spaceport America environmental contractors and should be delivered to the BLM on Jan. 8. The EA will be made public for a 30-day review on the BLM’s website. If all goes smoothly, it is expected DAC can release the Request for Proposals in mid-May with an award in July 2016.
Q. What do you expect or hope to come out of this year’s legislative session with regard to funding or other initiatives that could benefit the spaceport?
A. This year is an important one for us. We are transitioning to supporting all aspects of the spaceport from our operational budget, as the bonds have been spent except for the amount reserved for the southern road. This means things that were previously covered by bonds like construction and equipment now must be covered by the operational budget. We are ramping up our marketing activities and expect to earn about $4 million in fiscal year 2017, but this is just not enough to operate the spaceport. Thus, we are asking the legislature for $2.8 million. We feel fiscal year 2017 is a bridge year as we believe our anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic, will be flying in fiscal year 2018. In addition, VG’s rent goes up from $1 million per year to about $3 million per year, per their lease. We appreciate that our request is a lot of money, but we also feel that it is a relatively small amount to protect the state’s $218.5 million investment already made in the new and exciting commercial space industry.
The spaceport has already generated more than 2,000 jobs, currently employs a staff of 50 between the New Mexico Spaceport Authority and Virgin Galactic, and has 28 New Mexico support contractors. We have attracted more than 6,000 guests to our visitor center since June and have conducted real-time virtual education classes with more than 1,000 sixth-graders from Sierra and Doña Ana Counties since September. We also conducted our 24th launch in November. As much as I like the Rail Runner, we are definitely not like it!
Q. What do you have scheduled, even tentatively, as far as static rocket testing or vertical launches, including educational projects?
A. In addition to the UP Aerospace launch scheduled for June 2016, we have multiple educational launches in the pipeline. Both the University of New Mexico and New Mexico Tech have developed, or are in the process of developing, rocket development curriculum that will culminate in flight at the spaceport. New Mexico State University is exploring avenues of participation as well. As for static rocket testing, we have had several companies express interest and are following up. Stay tuned.
Q. What initiatives will you continue to grow or add in the coming year as far as tourism, education and outreach?
A. We will continue to work closely with our official tour operator to grow the Spaceport America Experience tour. While we will continue focusing on the North American market, we will also be extending our market outreach to Europe and Asia. Spaceport America’s STEM collaboration with the Las Cruces Public Schools Challenger Center will continue. We are working with Discovery Education, the LCPS Challenger Center and Virgin Galactic on a new STEM education project.
Q. What other business initiatives will the spaceport continue/pursue in 2016, for example photo shoots, facility rental, etc.?
A. It’s going to be an exciting year with the launch of our new dedicated brand aimed at location scouts and experiential marketers around the world. We have also grown our business development team so they can direct-sell to this market. We are pursuing additional tenants through our Northern Campus Development and have signed up our first tenant in this development, X2NSat, a satellite ground station company.
Q. Will we see testing by ARCA and is it possible Virgin Galactic will return a presence to the spaceport in 2016?
A. ARCASpace is planning to test their AirStrato product at Spaceport America in 2016. Virgin Galactic will be unveiling their next generation SpaceShipTwo in mid-February. It’s a bit early to predict when they will be returning for test flights at Spaceport America, but we are ready for them. We are also looking forward to signing up other aerospace customers and tenants in 2016.
Q. Anything else you would like to add?
A. Spaceport America is a long-term investment. It is already paying off in terms of jobs and educational opportunities for our students. We have come a long way from that first turn of the shovel in June 2009. We are optimistic about the commercial space industry and our role in it — just look at what incredible feats have taken place in the last several months. First, Blue Origin and then SpaceX successfully achieved a fully reusable landing — the holy grail of vertical launch. Many have attempted this for years but only now are we seeing its achievement — and the best is yet to come!
Jason Gibbs may be reached at 575-541-5451. Follow him on Twitter @fjgwriter.Press Release PDF