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Rubel: Spaceport Business Plan Has Changed Since 2005

Commentary: Former Gov. Bill Richardson loved to be around Hollywood stars, and would include them in his press conferences whenever possible.

And so, when it came time to announce the deal between the state and Virgin Galactic that would lead to the construction of Spaceport America, the most famous person at the press conference was not the governor or Richard Branson, the publicity-loving owner of Virgin Galactic.

It was actress Victoria Principal (this was 2005, when her role as Pamela Ewing on Dallas was still fresh in our minds). Principal was a paying customer who expected to be on the first launch into suborbital space, slated optimistically for 2008.

“New Mexico will be the launch pad for America’s second space age, centered on private-sector innovations and personal space flight,” then-Economic Development Secretary Rick Homans said, according to the Albuquerque Journal.

“This investment in economic development and high-wage jobs will create a new industry that will transform the economy in southern New Mexico,” Richardson predicted.

The business model was pretty simple. Instead of focusing on research and development, Virgin Galactic would sell tickets to Victoria Principal and her rich and famous friends for a blast into suborbital space.

The business plan for Las Cruces and southern New Mexico was to build lots of luxury hotel rooms and other high-dollar attractions designed to separate wealthy tourists from the vacation money burning holes in their pockets.

It took us almost a decade just to get a decent road built to the spaceport. The year 2008 came and went, with Branson continuing to make overly optimistic predictions about when the first launches would begin. And then 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Until October, 2014, when co-pilot Michael Alsbury was killed during a test flight. Then Branson stopped making predictions.

On Saturday, the spacecraft VSS Unity reached an altitude of 55.45 miles, within seven miles of leaving the Earth’s atmosphere, before gliding safely back to Spaceport America. It was the third successful test flight for the spacecraft, but the first to take off and land in New Mexico.

For the first time since the deal between Branson and Richardson was announced in 2005, it is now clear that commercial suborbital space tourism is more than just a theory.  

There are a few more test flights planned, one with Branson aboard. But the start of space tourism launches from Spaceport America this year seems like a real possibility.

“We’re going where no one has gone before,” Branson said in 2005. “There’s no model to follow, nothing to copy.”

That’s still true, though he now has new competition from Jeff Bezos. It’s not just the technology that’s never been done before, that’s also true for the business model. The number of people signed up thus far is impressive, but there would seem to be a fairly limited pool of customers willing and able to pay $250,000 a ticket.

And, aside from some special rooms at Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces, most of the grand plans to take full economic advantage of the wealthy visitors who will soon be arriving seem to have been long forgotten.

When the deal was announced in 2005, space tourism was the only vision for the spaceport. Now, that vision has been expanded. I’m still not sure that space tourism will be viable, but I have no doubt as to the future growth of the private space industry.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com