The past year has been a mixed bag for the commercial space industry, with successful launches from the likes of SpaceX, but also a few mishaps, including a tragic Virgin Galactic crash that claimed the life of one pilot. That last incident in particular has led some politicians in New Mexico to question the future of Spaceport America, where Virgin is an anchor tenant, and to even call for the US$200 million facility to be put up for sale.
"I don’t know who the potential buyers would be, but whatever proceeds we receive could be used to paying down the debt New Mexico committed to when we built the place," said state Senator George Muñoz, the sponsor of a bill to put the commercial spaceport up for sale. "There was a lot of hoopla before that if 'We build it, they will come,' but it’s been several years now and nobody’s shown up yet. New Mexican taxpayers are continuing to foot the bill for a $250 million empty facility."
While there hasn't been much activity at the Spaceport since its official opening in 2011, and Virgin's passenger space flights have been delayed, it's not entirely fair to call it empty either.
The large launch facility in the middle of the New Mexico desert adjacent to the Army's huge White Sands Missile Range is also home to SpaceX’s Falcon 9R and has hosted suborbital launches by UP Aerospace and others. SpaceX in particular has invested about $2 million in building up its launch area at the spaceport and plans to test the Falcon 9R in New Mexico this spring.
Gizmag called Spaceport America Executive Director Christine Anderson to learn more about the present and future of the underused facility. She told us that so far, there have been 21 launches at the facility and that the Spaceport is looking to diversify the services it offers, including possible use by commercial drones.
Anderson also says that the Spaceport is in talks with other commercial spaceflight companies to bring their launches to New Mexico. She concedes, though, that Virgin is obviously its anchor tenant and is likely to remain so for the next few years.
"They are very important to us and I'm encouraged that they are building their second spacecraft," says Anderson. "They are about 85 percent complete with that, and they've started a third one as well."
She anticipates that Virgin Galactic will be flying more test flights out of the Spaceport this year.
While the October 2014 crash has set back Virgin's timeline to launch commercial suborbital flights from New Mexico for paying customers, for its part the company says it is continuing work towards the goal this year while the investigation of the crash is ongoing.
"Our team is organizing the remaining build schedule of the spaceship to accommodate potential lessons from the ongoing NTSB investigation. We are committed to making any modifications or improvements that we feel are necessary to improve the safety of the vehicle... But of course, we aren’t only building spaceships, we are building a spaceline, which means we are working hard on our cabin interiors, fit out of Spaceport America, astronaut training program, commercial operational readiness, and much more."
Nonetheless, New Mexicans who have been footing the bill for much of the construction of the Spaceport so far are growing impatient with the lack of return on their investment. Ask locals in Truth or Consequences, the nearest town to the facility and the site of a visitors' center slated to open later this year, their thoughts about the Spaceport, and you often get smirks and snickers in response.
"It's always a year or two away from really getting off the ground," one local business owner told us on a visit to the town last spring, months before the Virgin Galactic crash in October.
That sentiment seemed to ramp up after the Virgin mishap made national news, leading to Munoz's bill to sell the facility and another from Las Cruces state senator Lee Cotter that aims to restrict more taxpayer money or bonding from going towards the project.
"With no craft to fly anytime soon and no tickets to sell, Virgin Galactic isn't generating money here," Cotter wrote in a recent guest column in the Silver City Sun-News.
Still, the Spaceport's Christine Anderson isn't deterred by the opposition.
"I think it's stemming from a small number of people... and some impatience with the commercial space industry," she tells Gizmag. "I think that we have to be patient and that's hard to do."
Anderson points out that Orville Wright was involved in a fatal crash in 1908 but the aeronautics industry still took flight, as did manned spaceflight following the Apollo I fire and Challenger and Columbia disasters.
"It's not a matter of if it's going to happen, it's when," she asserts.
Anderson says she anticipates the Spaceport may be making announcements regarding new launch partners soon. Meanwhile, the bill to put the Spaceport up for sale has moved out of its first committee and is set for another hearing by the state's Senate Finance Committee.