The head of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority told a powerful legislative committee on Wednesday she’s hopeful Virgin Galactic will begin commercial flights next summer, a key to ensuring the financial viability of Spaceport America.
Questions about when anchor tenant Virgin Galactic will launch have been swirling for years. The company originally had its sights set on 2010 but has suffered numerous setbacks, including a deadly accident last year that destroyed its rocket ship.
Lawmakers pressed Christine Anderson, spaceport’s executive director, for answers during a meeting of the Legislative Finance Committee in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
“Our assumption is that they wouldn’t begin commercial flights with passengers until July 2016,” Anderson said in an interview. “That’s just an assumption. It doesn’t mean I know any more than anyone else, but it means that I had to base my budget on something.”
The taxpayer-financed Spaceport America had ramped up operations in anticipation of launches this year, but activity stalled as a result of the Virgin Galactic mishap as well as crashes of rockets belonging to SpaceX and Armadillo Aerospace. That has left the spaceport scrambling for revenue.
Spaceport America survived last year on balances from past revenue, but legislative analysts say those balances have run out.
The spaceport did receive some general funds during the 2015 legislative session, but officials say another $1.2 million might be needed to avoid a shortfall during this fiscal year.
“The ability and timing for the spaceport to achieve self-sufficiency remains uncertain,” legislative analysts wrote in a five-page briefing that detailed the challenges facing the futuristic facility.
There have been 23 vertical rocket launches to date, and revenue has covered more than half of the facility’s operating expenses for the last three fiscal years. Those operating expenses are set to increase this fiscal year with the costs for security and firefighting services jumping to $3 million, or nearly half of the spaceport’s operating budget and triple the funds it receives from Virgin Galactic in the form of lease payments.
According to the finance committee, which is instrumental in crafting the budget each year, the security and fire staffing levels exceed state and federal requirements.
Anderson argued the spaceport is over an hour away from the nearest services and has more than $165 million in state assets aside from the staff and visitors who are at the site all week.
She also said the equipment at the spaceport is unique and requires specialized protection and briefed lawmakers on the spaceport’s updated business plan.
Since the commercial space industry is still in its infancy, she said Spaceport America — like traditional airports — will have to rely on other sources of income. That includes everything from being a test center for drones to hosting university rocket competitions and serving as a backdrop for television commercials and product launches.
“We’ve got a lot of interest from the non-aerospace side,” she said. “That’s healthy because it’s important for spaceports, no matter where you are, to have alternative sources of income. For us, because we are a beautiful venue, this is the clientele we can attract.”
Another focus is on tourism and merchandising. Spaceport America expects to have 61,000 annual visitors by 2017 and more than 100,000 by 2020. Anderson said ticket sales for tours have increased more than 130% since a new visitor center opened last month.
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