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Lawmakers ask about self-sufficiency of New Mexico spaceport

Virgin Galactic ground crew guide the company’s carrier plane into the hangar at Spaceport America after a test flight over the desert near Upham, New Mexico. (Associated Press file)

ALBUQUERQUE – Some members of a legislative financial oversight committee asked Monday whether Spaceport America will ever be self-sufficient, and they’ll likely have to wait months for an answer.

Public funds bankrolled the yearslong construction of the desert outpost in southern New Mexico, and figures presented during a meeting of the New Mexico Finance Authority Oversight Committee showed the Legislature provided about $2 million in general fund money for the fiscal year that ended this summer.

Another appropriation of state funding is budgeted for the current fiscal year, and executive director Scott McLaughlin told the lawmakers gathered in Truth or Consequences – just west of the spaceport – that the state funds will help to stabilize the budget and allow for hiring additional personnel.

McLaughlin said he has never made promises about being revenue neutral but that about 65% of revenue now comes from customer leases and fees and he hopes to grow that number.

He also told lawmakers the spaceport has broader impacts on economic development in the region, brings in tax revenues and plays a role in educational programs focused on science and technology.

A more comprehensive study is being done to answer questions about self-sufficiency and economic effects, McLaughlin said. It could be six months before a report is released.

The spaceport is home to anchor tenant Virgin Galactic, and a handful of other aerospace ventures have used the port for testing and vertical launches. Virgin Galactic anticipates commercial flights in 2023.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, a Las Cruces Democrat, noted that Virgin Galactic’s stock price is a fraction of what it was when the company went public. He also pointed to recent announcements that the company’s special carrier planes and rocket ships would be built out of state, while taxpayers in Dona Ana and Sierra counties continue to see a portion of their sales tax go toward paying off construction bonds for the spaceport.

“This is a very detailed, complicated issue that we need more time on,” Cervantes said, adding that continued oversight will be key.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, an Albuquerque Democrat and the committee’s chairman, urged spaceport officials to look for ways to get into what he called the freight business, in which more companies are launching satellites and looking for options when it comes to re-entry for rockets and capsules.

While the notion of launching paying customers into space is romantic, he said “there’s a significant amount of business that could be made in freight.”