The futuristic-looking terminal hangar rising from the New Mexico desert north of Las Cruces testifies to the success the state has had in making Spaceport America a reality. Championed by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and financed by a combination of state and local funding, a portion of which voters agreed to provide in the form of a sales receipts tax, the $209 million facility boasts a high-profile anchor tenant in Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard Branson’s venture that aims to take paying tourists into suborbital space.
Virgin Galactic is testing its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, whose fully developed WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft will take off from Spaceport America’s 3-kilometer-long runway. The company hopes to begin commercial operations in the next few years but is not being specific about its timetable. In the meantime, the New Mexico state legislature in March 2010 passed informed consent legislation intended to provide companies operating from the facility a measure of protection against lawsuits filed by their customers.
But the spaceport has had challenges of late, some of them foreshadowed by current New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who as a candidate in August 2010 questioned whether the state could continue to be a major benefactor under the current economic circumstances. This past April, the state legislature voted to slash funding for Spaceport America by 57 percent, from $1.17 million in the current fiscal year to $500,000 in the next fiscal year.
Christine Anderson had been on the job as executive director of the state’s Spaceport Authority for all of two months when that happened. She’s also had to contend with contract disputes; in one instance a contractor walked off the job of the facility, major elements of which are still under construction, claiming it was not getting paid.
Anderson, who recently retired from the U.S. Air Force after a 30-year civilian career that included several space management positions, remains upbeat, not only about the market for space tourism but also for companies launching scientific payloads from the site. She spoke recently with Space News correspondent Leonard David.
How do you plan to address the impact of the recent vote in the state legislature to cut Spaceport America’s funding next year by 57 percent?
There is a process for requesting a restoration of funding. I plan to follow that process. The funding cut was only to the spaceport office budget of $1.1 million. The overall spaceport development budget of $209 million is intact.
There have been reports of contractor complaints, late payments, a company walking off the job and a contractor being fired. What’s the situation?
We were hampered this year by two late occurrences in the legislative process … the transition to a new Spaceport board and my appointment. Both occurred after most of the legislative session was complete. The payment issue is being resolved. The majority of the contractors have now been paid. The late payments were due to a transition in staff associated with the payment process. We deal with contract primes, not their subcontractors. The subcontractors are managed by the primes. No construction prime contractors have walked off the job and none has been fired.
How are you drawing on your background to make Spaceport America come to fruition given the challenges ahead?
There are challenges, there’s no question. I’m learning lots of things on the job and using a lot of my 30 years of Air Force experience, different aspects of management and acquisition, relationships with the communities, political situations and funding. So far, I’ve mostly been involved in the paperwork. I did today start to look at informed consent and that’s rather interesting to me. We have one in New Mexico passed in 2010. But it has a sunset clause and it also is only for the operators of the vehicles as opposed to the manufacturers, the supply chain. That’s going to be every important to the spaceport if we’re going to be competitive with other states … and other spaceports around the world.
How much of the Spaceport America infrastructure is now in place?
The terminal hangar, which is the main hangar for Virgin Galactic, is really coming along. That’s such an iconic facility and looks like it’s from another planet. We have the Spaceport Operations Center constructed. The runway is done. We just awarded all of the communication network services for the spaceport.
There are some launch pads for vertical launches, which we’ll be continuing to enhance. The other facilities out there, like the water treatment plant, the fuel storage, that’s all built. So we’re kind of ending the Phase 1 construction.
What’s next on the agenda?
Again, enhancing some of the vertical launch pad areas and fitting out some of the buildings. Working with the Federal Aviation Administration, we have the vertical launch license now. We’re in the process of getting the horizontal launch license as well.
Also, we’re entering a period of time to look at the Spaceport America visitor experience. When someone goes out to the site, or to the two welcome centers being planned, what do we want the visitor to experience? I look at this not only from the passenger’s perspective — those lucky enough to fly on Virgin Galactic, or to have payloads on a vertical launch; I hope to inspire students.
We’ve all read that our country is not doing so well in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math. A spaceport can make more kids excited about those areas.
Given what you know about the ongoing testing of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle, do you have a target date to begin operations at Spaceport America?
That’s the hard part of planning. They are doing very well [in the testing]. I’d like to have the grand opening of the visitors experience when they are going to fly passengers, because on that day the eyes of the world will be on Spaceport America. I can’t get a date out of them, as you would expect. They will fly when they are safe to fly passengers.
So I sort of picked my best guess date, which could be way off. But I’m looking at the first quarter of 2013, somewhere in there. It could be six months later, could be a year later or a little sooner. Hopefully, not too much sooner because I’m not sure I can be ready.
What’s the sustaining revenue model for the spaceport?
We have a fixed amount … our severance tax money and gross receipts tax and that’s $209 million. And that’s what we have from the state. Anything past that is going to be revenue. We have to be self-sustaining after that. That’s why getting people out there as a tourist destination will help us continue to build it out, the vertical launch pads, better mission control facilities, more terminal hangar facilities for other tenants.
It’s all part of a business plan, but I haven’t gotten to the details of that. But that has to happen. It will probably be a five-year plan. The draft I saw is 10 years. To me, anything past five years is just totally smoke and mirrors. I’m not going there. If I can project out accurately, or semi-accurately, for five years, I’ll be happy.
We would love to have private investors, not only other tenants like Virgin Galactic, but aerospace research people. Also investors that may want to invest in the restaurant out there, gift shops from a hospitality operations perspective.
Gov. Martinez made appointments in February to all positions on the Spaceport Authority board of directors, handing them a mandate to responsibly develop the spaceport to its full potential, bring jobs into New Mexico and give taxpayers a healthy return on their investment. How’s your relationship with the new board members?
So far, we’ve met about every six weeks. It’s a very interesting board, very rich in the capabilities and talents they bring. The new board includes former NASA astronaut Sid Gutierrez. Being a state government agency, these are all public board meetings, so that’s very unique for me. I’m still getting used to that kind of setting.
What’s your response to critics who contend business at Spaceport America will be on the light side and portray the facility as a white elephant?
That’s very negative. I don’t look at that side of it. I’m planning for a successful spaceport. To me, we’re never going to be done because we’re always going to be making it better for our customers, whether they are vertical or horizontal launch, passenger-carrying or research and development. We’d like it to be a hub for commercial space and military space, for the research part of it.
I have been pretty busy trying to keep things rolling along since I came here in March. But as I get more proactive in the future, my next focus is going out and talking to people … because I think this is a great place to fly from. We foresee customers in the technology area that are building new things. They don’t know if they are going to work. They may launch them and they don’t work. But to me that’s not a failure. Every time you fail, which to me is not failure, you learn something else. That’s the only way you’re going to advance the technology. So that’s one big set of customers that we can support at the spaceport.
As for nobody showing, I just bet they said that about the first airport. I wonder if they could have foreseen LAX or O’Hare airports? I would guess not.