Spaceport Authority board approves $20 million in “urgently required critical infrastructure developments” despite Spaceport’s lack of a strategic business plan

by Kathleen Sloan | December 9, 2020
7 min read
More than $10 million will be spent to improve the launch technology, utilities and roads serving the Spaceport's vertical launch area in order to attract new tenants. UP Aerospace, whose vertical launch rail and SL-12 suborbital rocket are pictured here, has conducted multiple launches with experimental payloads under an extended contract with NASA using the existing facility. Photograph courtesy of NASA

The New Mexico Spaceport Authority board of directors met for almost three hours on Dec. 2, trying to correct its lack of oversight that partly led to Spaceport America’s having been led off-mission by recently fired Director Dan Hicks.

The meeting was the first since the release of an independent forensic audit confirming Hicks’s mismanagement and financial abuses that led to his dismissal in October. (A link to the Sun’s article on the investigation can be found at the end of this story.)

The investigation conducted by the McHard Firm of Albuquerque revealed the Spaceport has no strategic plan to guide spending. This finding identified perhaps the biggest weakness in the board’s ability to exercise oversight and financial control and to keep the Spaceport on-mission.

During the December meeting the board asked Interim Executive Director Scott McLaughlin to hunt for Spaceport America’s mission statement and to bring it up for review at the next meeting. The board’s need to refamiliarize itself with this foundational document is another yawning example of the space center’s rudderless operation.

Interim Director Scott McLaughlin will draft a strategic plan at the board’s request. Photograph courtesy of Spaceport America

The board devoted most of the meeting to scrutinizing newly drafted board bylaws; examining Open Meeting Act requirements and its rolling-quorum infractions; defining the board’s and the director’s procurement caps; and approving a fair hiring process to govern the search for a new director.

In the last 20 minutes of the meeting, with little discussion and without the context that a strategic business plan provides, the board approved nearly $20 million in capital projects.

The project funds will come from capital outlay previously approved by the New Mexico legislature, McLaughlin informed the board. Most of the funds allotted in the enabling bills passed by the House and Senate defined spending parameters loosely as “improvements.” This highlights how essential is the Spaceport Authority board’s detailed understanding and rigorous oversight of costly capital improvements.  

While Spaceport America does not have a strategic plan, governmental entities like NMSA are required by the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration to undertake an annual planning process to forecast their capital improvement priorities for the succeeding five years. The resulting Infrastructure Capital Improvements Plan is used to guide state and federal spending. “Ninety percent of capital outlay funding is for ICIP projects,” explained Donnie Quintana, DFA’s local government division director, in a Dec. 4 interview.

McLaughlin, an engineer who joined the Spaceport management team as director of business development, clarified in a Dec. 7 email to the Sun that none of the approved projects are in NMSA’s 2022–2026 ICIP.

“These projects were previously funded through a variety of Severance Tax Bonds and General Fund Allocations legislated during the 2018, 2019, and 2020 Regular Sessions,” he stated. “Their implementations have been delayed by a variety of reasons but we expect to be able to execute all within the next 12 to 18 months.”      

The interim director emphasized that the following projects approved by the board are “urgently required critical infrastructure developments that have been planned for some time. That is, these projects do not depend on a long-term vision, but rather are needed right now to support current site activities.”


The board approved an expenditure of up to $750,000 to repair the Spaceport Operations Center, a 2012 building with a steel understructure and thin-shell concrete outer structure that is shifting and cracking because, according to McLaughlin, “water is not draining away from the building.”

The Sun asked McLaughlin for information regarding SOC’s designer and whether an effort has been made to seek reimbursement for faulty design or construction. The information had not been made available by press time.

Funding for the SOC’s repair will come from House Bill 306, passed during the 2018 regular session, which allotted $6 million in severance tax bond revenue to the Spaceport, of which $500,000 was “to plan, design, repair, construct, furnish and equip infrastructure upgrades, including electrical, fire suppression, water, sewer, security, mission control, heating, ventilation and air conditioning and building systems at Spaceport America facilities in Sierra County.”

Funding will also come from Senate Bill 280, passed during the 2019 regular legislative session. The bill allotted $19 million “to plan, design, construct and make improvements at Spaceport America in Sierra County.”  


The board approved up to $9 million to be spent on a new, multifunctional building.

In presenting this project to the board, McLaughlin showed a picture of an on-site Spaceport visitors’ center designed by the IDEAS Group in 2012. The firm also designed a proposed visitors’ center to be located on local businessman Randy Ashbaugh’s land next to Walmart. According to Ashbaugh, the IDEAS Group was paid millions of dollars to deliver build-ready plans for both visitor’s centers.

McLaughlin told the board no architect had been hired to design the proposed new STARC building. He reported to the Sun, however, that he expected to begin work with a design firm within approximately the next 45 days.

“We are researching what they (IDEAS Group) were paid,” McLaughlin wrote the Sun, “but this was quite a while back, so we do not have an answer yet. We used this picture out of convenience, but the STARC is not meant to be ‘the’ visitors’ center, but rather a multipurpose building for short-term rental space by onsite and other customers, a gathering space for meetings, a space for media events, the site-wide fiber communications demarcation, the IT server room (to allow removal of NMSA equipment from the Gateway to Space), a short-term facility for package drop-off and storage (currently a big issue for the front gate guards), STEM activities support, restrooms for staff and visitors (there are none nearby), a medical treatment area, a security office, a replacement for the 4000 square-feet Gateway to Space Gallery area, a badging area, an outside viewing area for onsite visitors, and other uses.

“Currently, the only space we have is the SOC, which is also our firehouse, security office, contains a few NMSA offices, and where an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) would be located for any crisis.

“The available funds will also be used to improve the front gate physical area, which has experienced difficulties for large trucks entering and exiting, and to increase parking for any visitors to the site. We anticipate very high use of the new STARC building, as it will be available for onsite rental or even non-Spaceport-related rentals if otherwise available.”

STARC funding will come from House Bill 349, passed during the 2020 regular session. The bill approved $10 million in severance tax bonds revenue to “plan, design, construct and equip a payload processing center, an information technology building and a visitor access control facility at Spaceport America in Sierra County.”   


The board approved $2.2 million be spent to build a vertical launch rail for small rockets. UP Aerospace, which is headquartered in Denver and was one of the first companies to begin operations at the Spaceport, is to build and design the rail and housing facility.

According to its website, UP Aerospace is a “space launch and flight test service provider specializing in advanced engineering, launch technology development, and state-of-the-art rapid and low cost launch operations.”

UP Aerospace was hired for this project in a sole-source procurement process. The McHard investigation of Hicks questioned why the project was not awarded through a competitive request-for-proposals process.

The project’s procurement document stated UP Aerospace will have exclusive use of the vertical launch rail, meaning public funds essentially will be used to pay UP Aerospace to be a Spaceport customer, the investigation stated. The investigators recommended an RFP be issued for the project.

The board did not mention this investigation finding during the December meeting. Spaceport Authority Chairperson Alicia Keyes, who is New Mexico Economic Development Secretary, did inquire if the rail “is for potential customers, not just UP Aerospace?” McLaughlin answered in the affirmative.

Senate Bill 280, referenced earlier, will be the rail’s source of funding.


The board approved up to $8 million to put in electric, water and sewer utilities and to improve the roads at the vertical launch area. Bathrooms with running water are needed “to attract tenants,” McLaughlin explained to the Sun.

Bill 280 will be the source of funding.


Although the nearly $20 million in spending approved at the Dec. 2 meeting was not guided by a strategic plan, the board has asked McLaughlin to draft a plan for its approval.

“A Strategic and Master Plan to address the short-, medium- and long-term operational requirements of the Spaceport will be defined and prepared in the very near future,” McLaughlin stated. “It will address the mission, vision, and current state of NMSA; its organizational structure; its business model, markets, objectives, goals and metrics; and its facilities, future infrastructure requirements, and corresponding capital investment plans.”

Kathleen Sloan is the Sun’s founder and chief reporter. She can be reached at or 575-297-4146.
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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.


“Spacepork” nickname borne out in investigation into wrongdoing by former Spaceport director Dan Hicks
by Kathleen Sloan | November 24, 2020

According to a forensic audit released today, Hicks took advantage of the lack of board oversight to engage in questionable management practices ranging from excessive...

1 thought on “Spaceport Authority board approves $20 million in “urgently required critical infrastructure developments” despite Spaceport’s lack of a strategic business plan”

  1. I’d really like to see figures for the Spaceport’s revenues and expenses. I’m not clear on how much New Mexico has to come up with annually (if anything) to subsidize it’s operations. In 2019 the Las Cruces Hispanic Chamber of Commerce gave the Spaceport a “Business of the Year” award. I hadn’t known a state entity like the Spaceport was considered a business by anyone, but, if so, it certainly behooves the Spaceport to act like a business and not operate at a loss.

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