(by Stephanie Simon and Andy Pasztor, The Wall Street Journal, WSJ.com) TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M. – New Mexico’s $209 million Spaceport America is at last nearly complete, nine months behind schedule.
The two-mile-long runway for space planes is ready to go. Construction crews are putting the finishing touches on the futuristic terminal. But the real challenge is yet to come.
The spaceport was launched in 2006 by former Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, at a time when the state was flush with cash and the aeronautics world was abuzz with predictions of a boom in space tourism and commercial travel. Five years later, the state is hurting. The new Republican governor, Susana Martinez, has made clear that taxpayers are done subsidizing the spaceport, and it will need to cover its eventual operating budget of about $6 million a year.
That could prove to be a heavy lift. The technological and marketing breakthroughs that were supposed to usher in a dramatic surge in space launches have been slow to materialize. What’s more, while New Mexico has the newest, flashiest spaceport, it faces tough competition from other states vying to host commercial launches.
A spaceport in Virginia that once focused almost exclusively on hosting National Aeronautics and Space Administration and military launches is now reaching out to private firms, offering tax breaks and other incentives. Oklahoma is seeking tenants for a former Air Force base it converted into a spaceport. Potential rival projects in Puerto Rico and on the Texas coast are in preliminary discussions with Space Exploration Technologies Corp., founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk.
Foreign nations, too, are racing to get in the game. XCOR Aerospace, a start-up that aims to be the low-fare leader in space tourism, plans to launch its rocket-powered flights from spaceports under development in South Korea and the Caribbean island of Curacao, as well as its home base of Mojave, Calif. New launch sites are also under discussion in Scandinavia and the U.K.
New Mexico officials say they are not concerned. “I like competition,” said Christine Anderson, the executive director of the spaceport, which will continue to be a state agency. “It makes everyone try harder and do better.”
Skeptics aren’t sure there will be enough business to sustain all the spaceports. Oklahoma’s spaceport, for instance, hasn’t hosted a single launch since it received its Federal Aviation Administration license in 2006. It relies on state funding for 75% of its budget, executive director Bill Khourie said.
Global spending on commercial launches was about $2.5 billion last year, according to the Space Foundation, a global trade group. That’s just a fraction of the tens of billions spent on less-glamorous space activities, such as building satellites and ground facilities for telecommunications, weather monitoring and other services.
“There will always be a lot of fascination with the fiery end of a rocket,” said Frank DiBello, president of Space Florida, the state’s space agency. “But a lot of these states that are building launch capability are going to have to question whether they’re getting an economic benefit for the investment,” Mr. DiBello said.
He said he has shifted Florida’s focus to attracting on-the-ground industry that supports space-based products and services.
Spaceport boosters say their time will come. They are optimistic that space tourism finally will take off in the second half of this decade. They also predict growing demand for research flights that allow scientific experiments in zero gravity. And with the end of the space shuttle era, there will be demand for commercial space taxis to ferry astronauts and equipment to the international space station.
“We’re on the verge of a real breakthrough in this industry,” said Laurie Naismith, a director at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, or MARS, jointly operated by Virginia and Maryland.
In New Mexico, the unfinished spaceport has already hosted about a dozen launches for small private rockets carrying everything from lab experiments to cremated remains. The spaceport charges $1,500 to $75,000 for such launches, depending on how many services are required, so it’s not a huge moneymaker, but officials say it’s a promising indication their facilities are desirable.
The spaceport’s future depends heavily on its anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson. Virgin Galactic has signed a 20-year-lease and is expected to pay at least $5 million a year for the right to use the spaceport’s enormous runway to launch tourists on joyrides into weightlessness.
But the payments don’t begin until Virgin Galactic is ready for commercial launches of its six-passenger spaceship, which takes off like a conventional plane, then relies on a rocket’s kick to thunder into space at four times the speed of sound.
Mr. Branson originally suggested commercial flights could start in 2008. Then he revised that to 2010. Test flights continue, and a company spokeswoman said that “we’re very happy with the progress.” Virgin Galactic, however, no longer makes public predictions about when it will begin transporting passengers to space.
Officials in New Mexico also are counting on space tourism to have mass appeal, even for those without the $200,000 for the several-hour round trip. The spaceport’s budget depends on attracting at least 140,000 paying tourists a year to its remote site—nearly two hour’s drive from the southern New Mexico city of Las Cruces and about four hours from Santa Fe—to watch takeoffs and browse interactive exhibits.
But other states say they will have the upper hand in drawing tourists, because their spaceports are more accessible. One spaceport with potential tourist draw is XCOR’s in Mojave, a desert hamlet within easy driving distance of Los Angeles.
Copyright 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted here for educational purposes only. Visit the website at wsj.com.
1. List the following facts about Spaceport America in New Mexico:
a) Cost of construction
b) Number of years to complete construction
c) Length of the runway
d) Amount of the annual operating budget
2. Define spaceport and subsidize.
3. Former Democratic Governor Bill Richardson subsidized the construction of Spaceport America. Current Republican Governor Susana Martinez has said taxpayers will no longer subsidize the spaceport.
a) Do you support government subsidies in general?
b) Do you think the government of New Mexico should subsidize Spaceport America? Explain your answer. (State whether your answer would be the same if the state had extra money, or was not bringing in enough money to cover all of its programs.)
4. List at least 5 additional states/companies which have launched spaceports.
5. a) Although no longer subsidized by the state, Spaceport America will continue to be a state agency. How is Spaceport America responding to competition from spaceports in other states?
b) What factors will determine the success of New Mexico’s Spaceport program? (see para. 15-19)
6. How has Florida’s space agency Space Florida adapted to the possible shortage of customers for the number of space programs offered throughout the country?
7. If you had the money, would you take a flight into space? Explain your answer.
- The word spaceport…has traditionally been used for sites capable of launching spacecraft into orbit around Earth or on interplanetary trajectories.
- However, rocket launch sites for purely sub-orbital flights are sometimes called spaceports.
- In recent years new and proposed sites for suborbital human flights have commonly been named spaceports.
- Space stations are sometimes called spaceports, in particular if intended as a base for further journeys.
- A spaceport can also include runways for takeoff and landing of spacecraft equipped with wings. (from wikipedia)
Visit the websites for the aeronautics/spaceport organizations mentioned in the article:
- New Mexico’s Spaceport America at spaceportamerica.com
- The U.S. Government’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration at nasa.gov
- Space Exploration Technologies Corp. at spacex.com
- XCOR Aerospace at xcor.com
- Space Foundation at spacefoundation.org
- Florida’s state space agency Space Florida at spaceflorida.gov
- Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at marsspaceport.com.
Watch a news video on tours of Spaceport America in New Mexico:
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