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Special Report: Spaceport America vows to move forward

The crash of a Virgin Galactic prototype last October pushed back indefinitely the timeline for civilian spaceflight from southern New Mexico and now – with the occupancy of its anchor tenant nowhere in sight, taxpayers and officials are wondering if Spaceport America will ever fly.

It was supposed to be “the beginning of a new era,” but that all changed when Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed over the Mojave Desert.

“Of course that was a big disappointment and a sad event for everybody, we were right at the brink of them moving here we had done a few operational tests with them so everyone was getting moving here,” Christine Anderson, Spaceport America’s Executive Director, said.

A $1.7 million dollar budget shortfall soon emerged–from canceled flights and special events, including a Lady Gaga concert.

Virgin Galactic is building a new launch vehicle while the crash investigation continues. Test flights could begin by summer but the commercial flight timeline is unclear.

The pressure to quickly find new revenue is growing. In Santa Fe, a bill from State Senator George Muoz would order the spaceport to develop a plan for its sale.

The facility says it’s talking with 5 companies about potential leases.

“We’re expanding our business sectors a bit. Besides the space launch area which obviously we’re continuing to pursue and talk to a number of people on. Hopefully we’ll get another tenant in FY16 which starts in June. We’re also looking at drones and new A.V’s, so expanding some of the business sectors we’re looking at and getting diversity in our portfolio,” Anderson said.

A second anchor tenant, SpaceX, says test flights of its reusable rocket will begin in just a few weeks.

“SpaceX on their last taking cargo to the space station they attempted to land the Falcon-9R on the barge, they missed it by a little, but that’s how you learn,” Anderson said.

Spaceport’s also booking events and filming commercials.
In December, Kawasaki shot a commercial on the 12,000-foot long spaceway.
The spaceport’s very survival is being questioned. New Mexico Senator Lee Cotter says its deceiving taxpayers.

“I’m trying to prevent spaceport authority from using money that the taxpayers thought was to repay the debt to be used for operating the spaceport,” Senator Cotter said.

Sen. Cotter has introduced a bill that would prohibit spaceport from using excess funds for operating expenses. In 2005, constituents voted funds to build Spaceport America, and promised the money would be repaid. Cotter says voters never agreed to fund operations.

They are deceiving the voters, they are following the law, based on my understanding. However, they are deceiving the voters from what they were told back in 200–whenever the citizens of Dona Ana voted to impose this tax.

Anderson says the money was used as a “cushion.”

“We can use that for any legal purpose. Last year, he was concerned that we were using it for operational purposes, so this year, I adjusted the budget I put in as infrastructure so it will only go towards, for example, the vertical launch pad area, or electric lines, improvements to there so I can attract more customers. But apparently that wasn’t enough,” Anderson said.

The bill would also prohibit spaceport from seeking a private loan

“There is no provisions from borrowing money. They can continue to borrow money without asking voters but each time committing the voters to a longer and longer payment period. The second part prohibits the spaceport from borrowing further money without asking taxpayers,” Sen. Cotter said.

Anderson argues that would restrict spaceport’s potential.

“I don’t think they’re good things to put in place for the long-term viability of the spaceport,” Anderson said.

Anderson says setbacks come with the territory.

“When we’re pushing the envelope to human achievement it’s not always totally predictable. But we’re moving forward so that’s the important thing we’re and we’re part of it here in New Mexico,” Anderson said.

Virgin Galactic did not respond to our request for an interview. The visitor’s center is scheduled to open in March.

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