Spaceport America Seeks To Diversify Customer Base and Revenue Streams

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LAS CRUCES, N.M. — As Spaceport America gears up for the beginning of commercial flights next year by anchor tenant Virgin Galactic, the spaceport’s director says she is looking for additional users and revenue streams that will be required to eventually make the facility financially self-sufficient.

Christine Anderson, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, told attendees of the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) here Oct. 16 that commercial spaceports in general, like airports, will require a diversified revenue stream that goes beyond rent payments and other fees directly linked to launch activities.

“Airports are not self-sustaining today just on the aircraft that come in and out,” she said, citing revenue streams from activities like concessions and parking. “Spaceports, for a very long time and maybe forever, are not going to be able to rely on just launch vehicles.”

In the case of Spaceport America, the facility has already started to receive revenue from users, including Virgin Galactic. In a speech here Oct. 15, Virgin Galactic Chief Executive George Whitesides said the company has paid more than $2.6 million to the spaceport authority to date, in the form of rent for the company’s buildings at Spaceport America and other fees.

While Spaceport America is already getting revenue from customers, it also has costs even without significant launch activity. Anderson said in her speech that protective services, which include fire, rescue and security, are a significant part of the spaceport’s current operations costs. Because the spaceport is located 45 minutes from the nearest police and fire stations, the spaceport has to bear the full costs of those services, she said.

One additional source of revenue for Spaceport America may be tourism. A public viewing gallery will open in the main terminal building at the spaceport next spring, Anderson said in an Oct. 15 interview, and a separate visitors center in the town of Truth or Consequences will open in 2016.

The spaceport authority is also working to bring new companies to the site. In May 2013, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. announced that it would lease land at Spaceport America to conduct tests of the reusable version of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle, called the F9R. Anderson said SpaceX has spent more than $2 million on infrastructure at the spaceport, including a landing pad, fuel tanks and a mission control center.

SpaceX, though, has yet to begin test flights there. The company’s plans have been delayed in part by the loss in August of the first F9R test vehicle during a flight at the company’s test site in McGregor, Texas. The company has not disclosed a schedule for developing a second F9R test vehicle and resuming test flights, either in Texas or at Spaceport America.

Anderson said the spaceport authority is working to bring other companies to Spaceport America. “We’re talking to a number of other companies out there,” she said, without naming them. “We’re very hopeful that we’ll be getting another tenant in the next year.”

She said the spaceport differentiated between tenants, who lease facilities and maintain a permanent presence at the spaceport, and customers who come to the spaceport for a launch campaign or other short-term activity.

An example of a customer, she said, is UP Aerospace, a Denver-based company that performs launches of commercial suborbital sounding rockets from the spaceport, most recently on Oct. 23. “Both are valued,” Anderson said, “but we’d like to have more tenants.”

Anderson acknowledged that funding of Spaceport America has been a “really interesting challenge” in recent years, given the delays in the start of operations by its anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic. “I think it was always envisioned that they would fly before we were done,” she said. “Building a spaceport from scratch takes a while, but so does building a spacecraft.”

With Virgin Galactic officials suggesting that the development of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle is now approaching its final phases, Anderson is optimistic that the company will be flying from the spaceport soon. “We’re ready whenever they’re ready,” she said. “We’re definitely getting closer to the big day.”

 

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