Friday, January 7, 2011

Richard Branson, C'Mon Down ...

New Mexico's then-Governor Bill Richardson (left) with Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson as VSS Enterprise soars overhead at the opening of the Spaceport America runway on October 27, 2010. Photo source:

Space Politics reports that some folks in New Mexico are concerned the Spaceport America project may “slow down or fall apart pretty quickly” under new governor Susana Martinez.

During the 2010 gubernatorial election campaign, Martinez was less than enthusiastic about the project. Here's the comment she gave to

The spaceport has an impressive potential to bring development opportunities to southern New Mexico, with high-tech, good-paying jobs leading the way. We might also anticipate benefits to our educational system as the workforce required to support this industry will be highly educated and highly trained.

The state has already contributed a substantial initial investment to the project – more than half of the project construction costs to date. Given our budget realities, additional large investments would be a misguided use of our taxpayer funds. In addition, higher local taxes have been implemented on surrounding counties to help fund the construction of the project. Along with our tax increases levied by the state government, we are placing an undue burden on local residents during these very difficult economic times.

State government can continue to be a partner in the spaceport project, although no longer its major financier. We must attract more industry and private business to the spaceport facility to assist with future development costs. We need to look at further expanding the scope of the spaceport beyond personal space flights at a cost of $200,000 per flight and attract other private industries willing to venture as a partner in this endeavor.

As with all major state investments, as governor, I would order a review of spaceport financing and operations to make sure we are seeing the most equitable return on taxpayer dollars and look to continue to be a partner in the project by drawing more private industry and economic development opportunities to the area to support ongoing efforts. reports that project executive director Rick Homans was forced to resign in a general purge by Republican Martinez of political appointees by her predecessor, Democrat Bill Richardson. He fears the project could "slow down or fall apart pretty quickly" without support from the Martinez administration.

Hopefully local leaders here in Brevard County are monitoring the situation.

Without knowing the technical needs of Virgin Galactic, it seems to me that the Space Coast can offer all but a turnkey operation to Branson should New Mexico withdraw from the project.

Virgin Galactic joined with Orbital Sciences and Sierra Nevada Corp. last December to bid for space taxi services to the International Space Station. It's unclear where they would launch.

According to, Spaceport America aggressively courted Virgin Galactic after Virgin's SpaceShipOne captured the Ansari X Prize in October 2004. The blog explains why Virgin didn't come to the Space Coast:

According to [New Mexico Spaceport Authority Technical Director Bill] Gutman, as soon as SpaceShipOne -- the original model of the spaceplane now used by Virgin Galactic -- was awarded the prize, the spaceport started pursuing a partnership. [Spaceport America co-founder Bernie] McCune was among those tasked with making a presentation to woo Virgin Galactic into choosing New Mexico as its future launch site.

Spaceport America administration set out to determine what Virgin Galactic was looking for and then put together a report based on that, McCune said. "Later we were told that nobody -- meaning Florida or California -- talked to them about airspace control or winds in the upper atmosphere," McCune said. "It was a marketing thing for California and Florida; we treated it as a technical challenge."

The spaceport's founders said taking commercial spaceflight seriously allowed them to attract the kind of successful private industry partners -- such as Virgin Galactic and other companies who are already launching rockets -- that other spaceport projects couldn't. This early lead could place Spaceport America in an ideal spot to take advantage of a transitional period for human spaceflight.

The Space Coast hadn't taken seriously commercial space tourism at that point. The local aerospace industry was still geared towards government-funded human space flight. The Space Shuttle was still flying to build the ISS and Constellation was promised as Shuttle's replacement.

Six years later, Shuttle struggles to fly its final missions while Constellation was cancelled as a failed boondoggle. SpaceX has shown the private sector can launch and orbit a crew vehicle, and other vendors such as the Orbital/Sierra Nevada/Virgin Galactic group are looking to join the game.

If New Mexico wants to walk away from Spaceport America, hopefully America's original spaceport attracts Virgin Galactic to where astronauts have flown for fifty years — Cape Canaveral.

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