Support our spaceport
Back in 2006, I heard that New Mexico was going to build a commercial spaceport where tourists could buy a ticket and take a suborbital flight. I was skeptical about its chances to be successful.
I’ve changed my mind.
Spaceport America is unique, beautiful and well planned. The only thing that might keep it from being a successful economic venture is our reluctance to let it compete.
In 2011 and 2012, the Legislature balked at strengthening our informed consent law, as several other states have done for their commercial spaceports. As a result, three companies that might have come to New Mexico went elsewhere. We can’t afford to let that trend continue.
Our current law requires spaceflight operators, such as Virgin Galactic, to fully inform customers about the risks of spaceflight. By accepting those risks, the customers agree not to sue the operator unless it is grossly negligent or willfully disregards their safety. To keep pace with our competitors, we must extend that protection to spacecraft manufacturers and suppliers as well as the operators.
Spaceport America is unique, but it is not alone. Eight other commercial spaceports are licensed in this country, and several others are proposed. Texas, Florida, Colorado and Virginia have already broadened their informed consent laws, and California is moving in that direction.
Our current law will expire in 2018 unless the Legislature extends it. Texas, Florida, Colorado and Virginia’s have no expiration dates.
Our 20-year contract with Virgin Galactic to use Spaceport America gives us some degree of stability. But Virgin Galactic recently acquired full ownership of The Spaceship Company, which manufactures its spaceships and carrier planes. They have a vested interest in making their vehicles and operations as safe as possible. A flight failure could be devastating to their business. We should show our good faith by providing them a competitive business atmosphere.
Virgin Galactic is unique, but it is not alone. XCOR will be flying suborbital passenger flights not long after Virgin Galactic begins operating. Like Virgin, XCOR uses a runway for horizontal takeoffs and landings, but it offers a different customer experience at a lower price.
Having XCOR at Spaceport America would have broadened our appeal. But XCOR decided to build a research and development center in Texas and an operations and manufacturing center in Florida instead, because of those states’ informed consent law advantages. New Mexico lost out on 250 new jobs.
RocketCrafters moved from Utah to Texas. New Mexico lost out on 1,300 jobs.
SpaceX will employ 600 people at the launch site it will build in Texas.
Spaceport America offers more than tourist flights. Since 2006, unmanned rockets have carried commercial cargo, student experiments and government payloads on suborbital flights. The frequency of those flights is increasing. Armadillo Aerospace, which tests unmanned rockets at our spaceport, is working toward a tourist-carrying rocket that could operate here as well.
Virgin Galactic sells space on its upcoming flights for research as well as tourism. NASA and the Southwest Research Institute have already bought tickets. Virgin Galactic is also developing the capability to launch satellites into orbit. The Federal Aviation Administration projects a demand for more than 20 commercial satellite launches to low-earth orbit each year. Some of that could happen in New Mexico.
Finally, as a tourist destination, Spaceport America is special. Its architecture and location are unparalleled. Besides the people who come to fly into space, some 200,000 visitors a year will come to see the spaceport in operation, according to market analysis. That is an economic potential for the state that we must protect and encourage.
The commercial space industry is broad based and growing rapidly. If we want our spaceport to be successful, we have to grow with that industry.
Loretta Hall is a freelance writer and the author of the award winning book, “Out of This World: New Mexico’s Contributions to Space Travel.”