Commentary: In the spring of 2006, then-Gov. Bill Richardson signed the legislation to create Spaceport America.
“This is a unique opportunity for New Mexico to be on the ground floor of a new industry that will bring new companies, more high-wage jobs and opportunities that will move our state’s economy forward,” Richardson said at the time.
If all had gone according to plan, Virgin Galactic would now have a thriving space tourism business operating out of the spaceport. Millionaires and billionaires from around the world would be coming to southern New Mexico for this once-in-a-lifetime experience, spending freely in our stores and restaurants as they prepared for their big day.
As we all know, things have not gone according to plan. In October, 2014, co-pilot Michael Alsbury was killed during a test flight when the spacecraft violently came apart above the Mojave Desert.
The tragic loss of life brought an end to the cheery, overly optimistic predictions being made up to that point by Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson. He had originally predicted that flights would start in 2011, and was on the David Letterman show a month before the fatal crash assuring that launches would begin the next year.
The plan for Spaceport America was that Virgin Galactic would be the anchor tenant and the cash cow. It’s success would lure other companies to the spaceport and provide the resources for it to grow.
The crash meant that for the spaceport to survive, it would have to flip the script and bring in other space-related companies before Virgin Galactic was able to get off the ground.
It is, perhaps, fair to criticize past leaders for being slow in adapting to the new reality. To generate the revenue needed to keep the lights on, the spaceport has even been reduced to a backdrop for photo shoots. But, the lights stayed on.
Last week, Branson announced that Virgin Galactic was moving more than 100 employees from California to the spaceport to complete final testing and preparations for commercial launches.
A photo from the press conference shows Branson hugging Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham from behind in what looks to be something akin to the Heimlich maneuver.
I suspect opponents of the spaceport will see it as an apt depiction of the billionaire putting the squeeze on our poor state. Supporters may see it as depicting Branson as lifesaver for the spaceport. Neither is true.
I’ve always supported the concept of a spaceport, but have never been thrilled with its primary purpose being joyrides for the wealthy. At the press conference, Branson laid out a vision for the spaceport that was much more expansive. He foresees a network of spaceports allowing for supersonic travel, with hotels in space.
I don’t know if any of that will ever come true. I’m still not 100 percent convinced that his plans for space tourism will be a success. They are in the final stages of testing, and don’t expect to have any more setbacks. But space is unpredictable.
I am, however, now convinced that the spaceport can be successful even if Virgin Galactic is not. The lean years following the 2014 crash forced the spaceport to find new business. Earlier this month, SpinLaunch announced that it would build its new test facility at Spaceport America. They join with Boeing, UP Aerospace, HyperSciences and EXOS Aerospace, which are already at the spaceport.
Despite all of the frustrations since 2006, I think what Richardson said then is still true today. Thirteen years later, we’re still on the ground floor of this new industry.
Walter Rubel can be reached at email@example.com.