New Mexico built a spaceport—but will the payoff of space tourism ever come?  

by D. Jackson Warren | April 15, 2021
9 min read

Cover of Spaceport's Economic Impact studyAbout 800 people attended the opening of Spaceport America in 2011. The crowd, which included then Governor Susana Martinez and other dignitaries, watched in awe as Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson and friends christened the main terminal building by rappelling barefooted down its glass front. Ten years later, the thrill is gone.


Many New Mexicans, especially residents of Sierra and Doña Ana counties, whose sales taxes helped to build the Spaceport and have covered a significant portion of its ongoing operations, regard VG’s announced test flight next month as just the latest in a string of unfulfilled promises that space tourism will soon begin at the Spaceport.


Even if Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity rocketship successfully reaches the edge of space and glides safely back to earth in May, the much-heralded plan to send the America’s first space tourist—none other than showman Branson—into sub-orbital space has been pushed into next year by the need to do even more testing this summer.


Originally, Virgin Galactic’s goal was to have taken 3,000 “astronauts”—as the company prefers to call the customers who will have paid at least $200,000 for their chance to rocket skyward and experience weightlessness for several minutes—to the edge of space by 2012. Now it faces stiff competition for predominance in the space tourism industry from Space X, Blue Origin and at least a half-dozen other companies.


Despite—or, perhaps because of—the many setbacks afflicting its anchor tenant, in January 2020 the Spaceport America Authority released a glowing Economic & Fiscal Impact Analyses” conducted by the national public accounting firm, Moss Adams. A key finding was that the Spaceport had “already achieved a positive return on investment.”


The analyses was greeted with skepticism by the state’s major media outlets, as well as by the Rio Grande Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Albuquerque. RGF analyst Daniel Seymour, known as a longtime critic of the Spaceport, evaluated the economics and feasibility of many claims in the Moss Adams analysis. RGF released Seymour’s policy brief, titled “Lost in (Sub-Orbital) Space: Financial Reality vs. Fantasy at New Mexico’s Spaceport Authority,” in March 2020.


Neither report received much attention in Sierra County. Virgin Galactic’s test flight in a few weeks provides a reason to examine them both more closely now. Prompted by the aborted test flight of the VSS Unity rocketship last December, the rescheduled May test is a potentially make-or-break moment for Virgin Galactic and the Spaceport. As the RGF policy brief concluded: “Ultimately, to be considered economically successful (let alone profitable), New Mexico’s Spaceport must become the home base for Virgin Galactic’s frequent manned commercial launches as the project was originally sold to the people of New Mexico.”


The RGF brief is highly critical of Moss Adams’s assessment that the Spaceport is already a success, pointing out that the analysis contains a “few utterly absurd conclusions.” In particular, RGF disputes the contention that the Spaceport “broke even on a $270 million dollar investment shortly after opening in October of 2011.” In essence, Moss Adams suggests that taxpayer funding of the Spaceport’s construction was recovered before the facility had barely opened.


The Moss Adams analysis goes on to posit that the facility began producing net economic benefits for New Mexico as early as 2013. This claimed accomplishment is, on the face of it, at odds with Virgin Galactic’s failure to execute a successful New Mexico sub-orbital flight since the Spaceport’s opening. Finally, it forecasts that the Spaceport will produced $956 million in direct, indirect and induced economic impact by fiscal year 2024.


The RGF policy brief backs up its skepticism of such claims with facts and figures, drawn from the Spaceport’s audited financial statements and the state’s capital outlay spending records.


RGF calculates that the amount of revenue generated by the Spaceport is “just $54.3 million in income for the State over the last 12 years.” It further emphasizes that the $54.3 million is comprehensive, covering all Spaceport-associated expenditures, including “Virgin Galactic’s spending on offices, warehouses, employee relocation; film shoots, the SA Cup, hotel rooms and meals, tourism. . . .”


In reviewing the Spaceport’s audited financial statements, RGF found they “do not list any revenue other than taxes and transfers from the State government before 2015, making the 2013 break-even date presented to the media particularly dubious.” 


Moss Adams’s use of economic modeling software called IMPLAN may have led to overstatement of the Spaceport’s economic impact. The RGF brief quotes economist Donald A. Coffin, Ph.D., a professor at Indiana West University, who has described the IMPLAN model as “designed to generate large numbers to please a client who wants to lobby someone.” The Moss Adam analysis was released during the 2020 New Mexico legislative session at which the Spaceport America Authority, with the support of Virgin Galactic, asked taxpayers for an additional $57 million. It ultimately received another $10.5 million from the legislature in 2020—about $4 million less than in 2019.  


The RGF brief tallies up all the contributions to Spaceport America’s construction and operation made by New Mexico taxpayers to arrive at an investment of $275 million dollars as of 2020. In addition, RGF discovered there was an estimated $35 million of taxpayer money that was “allocated, but unspent,” including “capital outlay funds from 2019 that have not yet shown up” on the Spaceport’s financial statements. The policy brief concludes that the total public investment to date stands at about $310 million.


Another public contribution, often overlooked, involves the Spaceport’s use of 18,000 acres of land, owned either by the Bureau of Land Management or the state. The Las Cruces Sun-News reported in 2006 that the Spaceport had negotiated a 25-year sublease of its 1,000-acre main campus and 17,000-acre buffer zone from two large ranches that are the primary leaseholders. As is the case with the White Sands Missile Range to the Spaceport’s east, other opportunities to develop the economic or recreational potential of these public lands have been forestalled.


Citizens of Doña Ana and Sierra counties voted in 2007 and 2008, respectively, to raise their gross receipts taxes by 1/4 cent for every dollar spent. The voters were told three fourths of the monies was intended to pay back bonds used to finance the construction of the “Southwestern Regional Spaceport” (later rebranded as Spaceport America by Branson), while the remaining one fourth of the monies was to be spent on local STEM education. In recent years, the dedicated GRT has produced $6 to $7 million in revenues annually.


As previously reported by the Sun,  GRT revenues not needed to pay off the construction bonds have been channeled in operational support for the Spaceport, which has labelled these monies as “revenue” on its books, according to RGF. The RGF policy brief emphasizes that the most important return on the investment of public money in Spaceport America is the amount of new money that comes into New Mexico, not the recycling of locally raised tax monies within the local economy. 


Sierra and Doña Ana countians proportionally contribute more to the Spaceport than other New Mexicans, yet they are amongst the poorest counties in almost the poorest of all the states. According to 2018 Census information, both counties have a poverty rate of about 25 percent, well above the United States average of 12 percent. The promise that good-paying jobs would be created for Sierra and Doña Ana countians was a key reason why voters agreed to increased sales taxes.


The Moss Adams analysis states that Spaceport America has created 150 jobs in the space industry. In other words, New Mexico has spent more than $300 million over the past decade or so on the creation of those jobs—or about $2 million per position. That cost figure will look better if and when more jobs arrive; Moss Adams projects that 516 new jobs will be created here by fiscal year 2029.


Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing occurs in California at a Branson-owned company called Spaceship America (this sister company recently merged with Virgin Galactic). Branson also founded a new company in 2017 called Virgin Orbit, choosing California over New Mexico as its headquarters. Virgin Orbit is focused on military satellite applications and uses a launch technology similar to that of Virgin Galactic (i.e., releasing a rocketship from a larger craft at around 50,000 feet altitude).


Because most of VG’s high-tech operations are on the west coast, some have questioned the quality of the jobs that have been brought to New Mexico compared to those created in California. Neither Moss Adams or RGF breaks down how many of the 150 jobs have been filled by New Mexico residents in general and how many, if any, have come to Sierra County.


As a point of comparison, the RGF policy brief points out that Virginia’s spaceport “directly and indirectly supports 29,638 jobs with $53.9 million of public financing per year, compared to Spaceport America’s 150 jobs supported by $14.9 million of public financing in 2019.”


Virgin Galactic’s new CEO Michael Colglazier told CNBC last November that the company could bring in as much as $1 billion in annual revenue at Spaceport America when it is fully operational. Tellingly, Colglazier and Virgin Galactic’s website both acknowledge that the company’s “multi-year effort targets flying 400 flights per year, per spaceport [author’s emphasis].”  So, it appears that Virgin Galactic’s space tourism business will not be solely based at Spaceport America. The CNBC article reported that VG has been in conversations with such countries as Abu Dhabi, Italy, the United Kingdom, Australia and Sweden about setting up launch facilities.


Virgin Galactic’s “multi-year effort” began around 2005 when Branson and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson joined forces for a “Build It and They Will Come” creation. The governor persuaded taxpayers to build the Spaceport, while Virgin Galactic began working on designing spacecraft. Local residents dreamed of high-quality jobs and throngs of space tourists that would improve life in the region.


New Mexico did its part. Virgin Galactic has yet to deliver. Not to worry, though. Branson’s long-awaited mission toward the stars has been rescheduled for sometime in the next 12 months. No specific date has been given for when paying astronauts will take off from Spaceport America, but we know it will be no earlier than 2022.


So, 10 years after the grand opening of Spaceport America, Sierra and Doña Ana counties remain in a “holding pattern,” waiting for the promised economic development to blossom. One can’t help wondering whether Virgin Galactic will soon be describing its timeline as a “multi-decade” effort.


Editor’s Note: To find links to the Moss Adams analysis and the Rio Grande Foundation policy brief, click here.




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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.

4 thoughts on “New Mexico built a spaceport—but will the payoff of space tourism ever come?  ”

  1. But wait, Virgin Galactic has indeed achieved even inter-galactic flight . . . and disappeared into a black hole with hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars. How exciting, and right here in Sierra County! Whew!

  2. It was great to see this piece in the Sun. Given that all of us who live in Sierra (and Doña Ana) counties are financing the Spaceport through gross receipts taxes, it is particularly important that we know what we are really paying for. And how we are benefiting from this investment.

  3. Charles Sullivan

    Here’s the link to an article I wrote last year about the Spaceport:

  4. Spaceport America still has two tremendous advantages: 1) predictable access to White Sands Missile Range Special Use Airspace for scheduling ease; and 2) its altitude of 4,595 feet above sea level for increased orbital payload. Neither politics nor opinion will change those facts; time and marketing will determine the significance of those advantages. I wish Sir Richard Branson success and hope he doesn’t kick the bucket before he brings the publicity spotlight here and generates some tourist $$ in Sierra and Doña Ana counties! The money has been spent—we may as well all become cheerleaders for this space-launch project.

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