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Spaceport America hangar
On a mid-October visit to Spaceport America, Virgin Galactic’s main hangar was empty except for a full-scale model of SpaceShipTwo. (credit: J. Foust)

A spaceport in limbo

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Three years after a formal ceremony to dedicate the its main terminal building (see “A gateway to space emerges in the desert”, The Space Review, October 24, 2011), there’s still construction going on at Spaceport America. On a visit to the site last month, workers were making progress on a new entrance to the facility, one that will include a sculpture as part of a public works arts program. Part of that main terminal building—the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space—was surrounded with fencing, an insurance requirement, a spaceport employee said, as the building’s interior was being outfitted.

“I think it was always envisioned that they would fly before we were done,” said Anderson of Virgin Galactic.

But, overall, the spaceport was nearly ready for its anchor tenant. The spaceport’s operations building, next door to the much larger Virgin Galactic hangar, was effectively up and running, with offices for the New Mexico Spaceport Authority staff and a control center with a view of the spaceport’s 3,660-meter runway. The building also houses a fully-staffed fire and rescue unit which, along with the spaceport’s security staff, are needed since the closest fire station, sheriff’s office, and hospital are 45 minutes away in the town of Truth or Consequences.

Of course, when plans for Spaceport America were first announced nearly nine years earlier, local officials assumed that the spaceport would have been up and running with Virgin Galactic flights by now. “I think it was always envisioned that they would fly before we were done,” said Christine Anderson, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, said in an interview October 15 during the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS), the annual commercial space conference held in the southern New Mexico city of Las Cruces.

“Building a spaceport from scratch takes a while,” she added, “but so does building a spacecraft.”

Delays by Virgin Galactic have affected the spaceport, particularly its finances. The spaceport had counted on rent payments and other fees from Virgin Galactic as a major source of revenue. Although flights haven’t started there, some money is coming in.

“We have already spent, in rent and fees paid to the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, more than $2.6 million, and are fulfilling our obligations under the lease,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said in an October 15 presentation at ISPCS. “Since 2010, we’ve paid more than $3.6 million to New Mexico suppliers, and we have customer-related hospitality contracts valued at an additional $3 million to New Mexico firms.”

“It’s still early days,” he added, “but it shows there’s real money being spent here on our part.”

However, those Virgin Galactic payments alone have not been enough to fully fund spaceport operations. The spaceport authority, for example, has been using excess revenue from a local sales tax not needed for paying off construction bonds. “It’s been a really interesting challenge,” Anderson said of the spaceport’s finances. “We are stretching a little bit.”

However, in a separate speech at ISPCS October 16, Anderson cautioned that, even once Virgin Galactic was up and running at the spaceport, the facility would not be self-sufficient on rent and user fees, and needed other sources of revenue.

“Airports are not self-sustaining today just on the aircraft that come in and out,” she said, noting that commercial airports depending on fees from parking and concessions to help support their operations. “Spaceports, for a very long time and maybe forever, are not going to be able to rely on just launch vehicles.

One approach to diversification is through tourism. Today, the public can take bus tours of the spaceport from Truth or Consequences on weekends, for $59 per person. (Because of its remote location, the public isn’t allowed to drive to the spaceport itself.) The main terminal building will have a gallery for the public that would open in the spring of 2015.

Whitesides said Virgin Galactic has paid $2.6 million in rent and fees to the spaceport, plus millions more in contracts to local firms. “It shows there’s real money being spent here on our part.”

The spaceport authority is also developing a visitors’ center in Truth or Consequences that would open in April 2016, from which visitors would take buses to the spaceport. “The bus itself, we like to think of it as a mobile theater,” Anderson said. “We’re doing some videos about the commercial space industry that will start preparing people for when they get there.”

Another effort by Spaceport America to generate additional revenue is to bring in additional tenants. Last year, they announced an agreement with SpaceX, where the company would conduct tests of its F9R reusable launch vehicle technology demonstrator at the spaceport. The company had been conducting those tests at its own test site near McGregor, Texas, but Spaceport America would allow them to fly the vehicle to much higher altitudes than permitted at McGregor.

Anderson said SpaceX has spent more than $2 million on infrastructure at the spaceport, including a landing pad, fuel tanks, and a mission control center. Those facilities are located at the spaceport’s vertical launch area, several kilometers south of the runway and associated buildings.

However, the flights have yet to begin: in August, SpaceX’s first F9R vehicle crashed during a test flight at McGregor. SpaceX has not disclosed a schedule for developing a second vehicle and flying it, either in McGregor or at Spaceport America.

Anderson said she is working to bring other companies to Spaceport America. “We’re talking to a number of other companies out there,” she said, although not identifying any specific prospects. “We’re very hopeful that we’ll be getting another tenant in the next year.”

Although Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are considered tenants of the spaceport, the facility has other customers who come to the spaceport for short-term campaigns. An example is UP Aerospace, the Colorado company that does commercial sounding rocket launches from the spaceport’s vertical launch area. Its most recent launch, designated SpaceLoft XL 9, took place on October 23.

Anderson said while that she’s happy to have customers like UP Aerospace, she is looking to bring in more permanent—and likely more lucrative— tenants. “Both are valued,” Anderson said of the difference between customers and tenants, “but we’d like to have more tenants.”

For now, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority has not discussed the implications of an extended delay of spaceport operations caused by the SpaceShipTwo accident.

In the mid-October interview with Anderson, there was a sense that the long wait for the spaceport to begin hosting Virgin Galactic flights—its original reason for existence, despite finding additional users—was nearing an end. She said that while some people in the community were excited for the prospect of flights beginning, others were getting impatient. “And there are some who are skeptical about space in general,” she said.

At the time of the interview, there was good reason for that optimism. Although Virgin Galactic had recently indicated the first commercial SpaceShipTwo flights would not take place until early 2015, the company was indicating they would soon be ramping up their test program. “I, personally, am incredibly excited about the next six months,” Whitesides said at ISPCS.

Then came the events of last Friday. What was supposed to be another milestone towards the beginning of commercial flights at the spaceport—the first powered flight test since early January, and the first to use a revised hybrid rocket motor—turned into a tragedy in the skies above the Mojave Desert.

Whatever the outcome of the investigation is, it’s clear that Virgin Galactic won’t be flying out of Spaceport America for the foreseeable future. A second SpaceShipTwo is under construction, but at a media tour held at the company’s Mojave factor last month, company officials said it would not be ready to begin commercial flights until 2016—and that schedule is subject to whatever changes need to be made as a result of the accident investigation.

For now, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority has not discussed the implications of an extended delay of spaceport operations. “We will continue to work with and lend our support to Virgin Galactic through this tragedy and in the coming months as we move forward,” the agency said in a statement issued hours after the accident.

The spaceport may need an economic lifeline from the state to maintain operations until Virgin Galactic recovers from the accident and is finally ready to fly from the spaceport. But in the worst-case scenario—one where Virgin Galactic does not for some reason resume development of SpaceShipTwo, despite statements in the days since the accident that it would—all bets may be off for the spaceport’s future.