Suborbital flights from Spaceport America are expected to begin this year or next, but the current upheaval could cause the project to “slow down or fall apart pretty quickly” if Gov. Susana Martinez doesn’t “clearly and unequivocally” declare her support, the outgoing spaceport director says.
Rick Homans resigned from his job as the spaceport’s executive director on Wednesday during an emergency meeting of the Spaceport Authority, but not before reading pointed remarks about the Martinez administration’s demand that he resign.
“While I have embraced this project, it is clear that Governor Martinez is not embracing me,” Homans said during the meeting.
“…My hope is that Governor Martinez can quickly move beyond viewing Spaceport America as the legacy project of Bill Richardson,” he said. “The very best thing that can happen is for Governor Martinez to embrace this project as her own legacy. She will be the governor who opens the first purpose-built commercial spaceport in the world – and the world will be watching.”
It was Homans who sold former Gov. Richardson on the vision of building the $210 million spaceport in the remote desert northeast of Las Cruces. Richardson and Homans worked hard to convince the Legislature and local counties to provide funding.
Detractors view the spaceport as a taxpayer-funded platform for Virgin Galactic to fly rich people into space. Supporters say it’s much more than that, and talk about making Southern New Mexico the center of the commercial space industry in North America. With that has come a comprehensive effort to attract jobs and focus educational programs at the high school and college level on the space industry.
The spaceport has no bigger cheerleader than Homans, who said in an interview that he is concerned about the future of the project.
“Right now, the spaceport authority is without a chairman, an executive director and a general counsel, and the tenure of the existing board members is up in the air,” he said. “For a $210 million project that’s in full swing, where decisions have to be made every day, that’s not a good position, and it needs to be firmed up very quickly with credible leadership.”
Homans called on Martinez to “step up very clearly and unequivocally, and declare her support for this project and bring her entire administration behind it 100 percent, because there are huge challenges to be faced.”
“Without the support from Santa Fe that this project has enjoyed over the last five years, things can slow down or fall apart pretty quickly,” he said.
Martinez’s views on the spaceport
Personnel issues aren’t the only reason people like Homans are concerned about the project. Earlier this week, Martinez was quoted by the Las Cruces Sun-News as saying her administration plans to audit spaceport funding. She was also quoted by the L.A. Times as saying she is looking to privatize operations at the spaceport.
Asked about Martinez’s views on the spaceport, spokesman Scott Darnell pointed to a prior statement from Martinez published by NMPolitics.net in August:
“The spaceport has an impressive potential to bring development opportunities to southern New Mexico, with high-tech, good-paying jobs leading the way. We might also anticipate benefits to our educational system as the workforce required to support this industry will be highly educated and highly trained.
“The state has already contributed a substantial initial investment to the project – more than half of the project construction costs to date. Given our budget realities, additional large investments would be a misguided use of our taxpayer funds. In addition, higher local taxes have been implemented on surrounding counties to help fund the construction of the project. Along with our tax increases levied by the state government, we are placing an undue burden on local residents during these very difficult economic times.
“State government can continue to be a partner in the spaceport project, although no longer its major financier. We must attract more industry and private business to the spaceport facility to assist with future development costs. We need to look at further expanding the scope of the spaceport beyond personal space flights at a cost of $200,000 per flight and attract other private industries willing to venture as a partner in this endeavor.
“As with all major state investments, as governor, I would order a review of spaceport financing and operations to make sure we are seeing the most equitable return on taxpayer dollars and look to continue to be a partner in the project by drawing more private industry and economic development opportunities to the area to support ongoing efforts.”
Darnell said the governor sought the resignations of all Richardson political appointees, not just Homans. He said the administration is reviewing the “activities and membership” of the Spaceport Authority and “assessing what changes need to be made.”
‘Dealt with as a special issue’
Homans said he understands that these are tough times financially, but he said the spaceport needs to be treated differently than the rest of state government.
“This project is really an anomaly in state government, because this project is ramping up in a big way and the rest of state government is ramping down in a big way,” he said. “So this needs to be put on the side and dealt with as a special issue with special attention, and that leadership has to come from the governor.”