By Deborah Baker
SANTA FE — The Richardson administration on Wednesday urged lawmakers to support a state-built spaceport in southern New Mexico as skeptics questioned the risk of investing in what one called a “chancy venture.”
The state could be “the birthplace of the second space age” if it built the proposed $225 million facility in the high desert of Sierra County, Economic Development Secretary Rick Homans told legislators.
Some lawmakers wondered whether needy New Mexico wouldn’t be better off spending its oil-and-gas windfall on more basic items such as education, health care or more down-to-earth economic development.
And in lengthy question-and-answer sessions in the Senate and House, some critics worried about runaway costs and suggested state government didn’t have any business taking risks with public money.
Gov. Bill Richardson wants a $135 million commitment from the state: $100 million over the next three years from capital projects funds, $25 million this year from a state transportation program and $10 million already appropriated for spaceport-related projects.
The other $90 million would come from a mix of federal and local funds. Counties and municipalities would be authorized by the Legislature to ask voters to raise gross receipts taxes by amounts ranging from one-sixteenth of a cent to one-half of a cent.
Homans said many local officials — particularly in Dona Ana and Sierra counties — will push for the tax increases, and he predicted $30 million to $50 million could be raised that way.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., has promised federal help.
The $225 million would cover basic infrastructure, such as roads, water and a runway that could eventually be 12,000 feet long, Homans said.
British tycoon Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic says it would move its headquarters to the spaceport and launch a space tourism industry from the site. Homans said Virgin Galactic would be an “anchor tenant” but that other companies also would pay to use it.
Virgin Galactic’s headquarters — projected to employ 200 — would be built by issuing bonds that the company would pay off over 20 years under a lease agreement. Lease payments in the first five years would be capped at $1 million.
The British company plans to take tourists — six passengers and two pilots — about 70 miles into space on 2 1/2-hour, suborbital trips that will cost $100,000 initially.
“What we’re talking about here is not just taking rich people into space,” but rather the beginning of a commercially viable space travel industry, said Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn. The flights could start as early as late 2008 or early 2009 from Mojave, Calif.
Former Gov. Garrey Carruthers, dean of the College of Business Administration at New Mexico State University, said if New Mexico doesn’t do it, some other state will.
“This is an infant industry and you need to be patient,” Carruthers said. “This will take a while … but the payoff could be grand.”
A study done for the Economic Development Department by Futron Corp. predicted the spaceport could net the state $752 million in revenue and up to about 5,800 new jobs by 2020.
Homans reminded lawmakers there had been bipartisan support for a spaceport for the past 15 years; now the technology has made it feasible, he said.
Virgin Galactic was formed after SpaceShipOne, designed by Burt Rutan and funded by Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen, became the first privately manned rocket to reach space last year and went on to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize. Virgin Galactic has made a deal with Rutan to build five spacecraft.
Lawmakers questioned why threatened Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis or the former Walker Air Force Base in Roswell couldn’t be used for a spaceport.
Whitehorn said while they may be able to be used in the short term, the restricted air space over the adjacent White Sands Missile Range makes the proposed site the best in the nation for a space tourism industry.