Spaceport America seeks $2M budget increase from lawmakers next year
Spaceport America director Scott McLaughlin made the case for $2 million in additional state appropriations before lawmakers on the Science, Technology and Telecommunications Committee Monday.
The Oct. 22 test flight by spaceport tenant SpinLaunch, as well as two flights to the boundary of space by Virgin Galactic earlier in the year, were on a list of recent developments at the Sierra County facility which McLaughlin said demonstrate the spaceport's worth as "an active test and development range."
While the hearing was primarily for providing updates on technical programs at the spaceport, McLaughlin's testimony was also an appeal aimed at state budget committees ahead of the 2022 legislative session.
The director also pushed back on critics, including state lawmakers, who have suggested in the past that the spaceport be sold off or privatized. McLaughlin said such calls only served to drive potential tenants and customers away.
SpinLaunch has been developing a centrifugal launch system at the spaceport since 2019, pouring $40 million into construction on site. The technology spins projectiles at speeds reaching Mach 5 before releasing them from its 150-foot-tall accelerator. Last month's flight was its first, and McLaughlin said the missions success had overcome skepticism about the technology.
While commercial space flight company Virgin Galactic does not expect to resume passenger flights until late 2022, as its carrier aircraft and space vehicle undergo several months' worth of maintenance, McLaughlin said the company planned to move its new spaceship, the VSS Imagine, to the spaceport next year in anticipation of regular commercial service in 2023.
McLaughlin also highlighted Aerovironment and HAPSMobile's $8 million investment in facilities on-site where it is developing a solar-powered glider envisioned as a "cell phone tower in the sky."
The spaceport's proposed budget for the next fiscal year was $10.9 million, of which $6.8 million is projected to come from leases, fees and other customer revenue. The New Mexico Spaceport Authority, the agency managing the spaceport, is seeking the remainder from state appropriations.
Without it, McLaughlin said the spaceport would need to make deep cuts in operational expenses where it could, including staffing and services, perhaps even reducing operations to five days per week.
He argued the investment was worthwhile for the economic stimulus from aerospace and construction jobs already realized, plus tourism from major events such as the annual rocketry competition Spaceport America Cup. The agency projected further growth as the spaceport's tenants bring their projects to fruition and, McLaughlin hopes, more customers seek the spaceport's services and locate their workforces to the area.
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In hopes of expanding its appeal further, McLaughlin said the spaceport had begun work on acquiring an orbital reentry license from the Federal Aviation Administration, although he noted authorization for orbital launches from the spaceport were not likely in the near term given its proximity to populated areas.
The spaceport was also studying opportunities for serving unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, at the spaceport as well as potential complications due to airspace restrictions at the facility, which is located near White Sands Missile Range.
While McLaughlin said the aim was to increase operating revenue and reduce the facility's reliance on appropriations, he did not promise the spaceport would become entirely self-sufficient.
Lawmakers on the technology committee asked few questions. State Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, encouraged McLaughlin to explore collaborations with the Las Cruces International Airport, a municipal airport west of the city where Virgin Galactic maintains a hangar for charter flights.
The airport is undergoing a revised master plan to incorporate improvements targeting aerospace companies.