New Mexico uncertainty

By and large things are going well at Spaceport America: other than a delay with one of the spaceport buildings, construction of the commercial spaceport in the New Mexico desert is proceeding, with the runway dedicated in October and other buildings, including the main terminal, making progress. Yet there is some uncertainty about the future of the spaceport, including who will be running it.

That uncertainty stems from the change in government in the state, as Susana Martinez (R) succeeded term-limited Bill Richardson (D) as governor on January 1. The change in governors, and political parties, means that heads of many state agencies will be leaving. Rick Homans, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, which runs the spaceport, told the Sante Fe New Mexican last week he hopes to retain his post but wants to have discussions with the Martinez administration about their plans. “I love the project. I am committed to it. I would love to see it through,” he said. “But I need to have further discussions with the new administration about what their goals are with the spaceport and what they want to do with the board and what they’d like to see with the executive director.”

When I spoke with Homans in October, prior to Martinez’s November general election victory, he said that he had briefed Martinez about the project about the past. (Martinez would likely have been familiar with the project from local news coverage, since prior to the election she was district attorney for Doña Ana County, where Las Cruces is located.) Homans has been playing up the spaceport’s successes in the last year, such as in this op-ed on Last week the Las Cruces Sun-News, in an editorial, called on Martinez to retain Homans and his team: “With the spaceport on schedule to open in 2011, this would be a poor time to change leadership.”

What plans Gov. Martinez has for Spaceport America aren’t clear. A Los Angeles Times article claims that Martinez “is looking to privatize operations at Spaceport America” but gives no specifics. During the campaign, Martinez indicated that she didn’t want the state investing more money into the spaceport, saying such “additional large investments would be a misguided use of our taxpayer funds”, although there’s no indication any such “large investments” are planned for the spaceport for the foreseeable future after the completion of the facilities there already under construction. She said she wanted more private investment for any future development costs as well as “expanding the scope of the spaceport beyond personal space flights”.

Update: the Las Cruces Sun-News reported Tuesday that the Martinez administration plans to audit Virgin Galactic’s contract with the spaceport, as well as the spaceport’s finances. Martinez told the paper that she also wants to find out how “we bring private industry to be part of the spaceport, so that eventually state tax dollars aren’t necessary.” The article also notes that the spaceport’s board has called an emergency meeting for Wednesday that, according to the article, will feature a single item: a closed session “to discuss personnel matters”.

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