Spaceport America makes moves to build reception center

State officials at the space tourism hub have more than $34 million in unspent funds for capital outlay improvements.

By: - April 12, 2023 5:05 am

The hangar at Spaceport America, prior to the launch of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Unity, July 10, 2021 in Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico. Officials are making moves to build a new reception center with capital outlay money approved in the 2019 legislative session. (Photo by David Lienemann / Getty Images)

An effort to design and build a new reception center in southern New Mexico at Spaceport America is underway, although the bidding process is still under wraps.

In 2019, lawmakers awarded $10 million in capital outlay funds for the centerpiece building and other New Mexico Spaceport Authority improvements. 

New Mexico Spaceport Authority put the project out for bid in February 2023, three years after the governing board approved spending $9 million to construct the new building during a virtual video meeting in Dec. 2020.

The current facilities in the desert scrublands outside Truth and Consequences used $220 million of public money in construction between 2006 and 2012.

In a 117-page request for bid, the proposed building is described as a three-story, 30,000-square-foot welcome center with staff offices, conference rooms, an auditorium, cafeteria and dining area, and a server center.

Spaceport officials declined an interview Tuesday, saying the project is confidential until a contract is signed. The schedule attached to the bid estimated that a final contract could be signed by April 15. 

The schedule after the submission of proposals is not considered a set schedule, only an estimate,” Carruth said. “Therefore, those dates are not exact and the process does not always stay exactly on track.”

Currently all visitors go through the Spaceport Operations Center, which also houses its largest tenant Virgin Galactic. That “presents certain security risks,” Spaceport officials wrote in a recent audit, since the building is behind the aviation operations area.

Poor drainage has damaged portions of the iconic dome roof. The spaceport had to replace 20 skylights and will continue to undergo repairs. Spaceport America Executive Director Scott McLaughlin said the group is hiring contractors to develop a “more holistic” maintenance plan for the roof.

“We were unprepared for the rains that came this summer,” McLaughlin told lawmakers in February, assuring them “we’re on top of it.”

Since 2018, the New Mexico legislature appropriated more than $55 million for multiple Spaceport capital outlay projects. More than $34 million went unspent, the Legislative Finance Committee noted in its April 2022 report, the most recent from the state.

McLaughlin told lawmakers that Spaceport was” spending money much quicker on the capital improvement” in an effort to complete projects.

Four capital outlay projects at Spaceport America have been funded including a refueling center, hangar construction, the new reception building, and updating internal roads and utilities.

All four projects were “red rated” by the LFC. A red rating means there’s been little to no activity and “significant obstacles” to complete the project. Another project is in the planning stages to “advance engineered concepts” for the new reception center paid for by $10 million in severance tax bonds is behind schedule.

In the most recent budget, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority received just over $4 million from the General Fund. Their revenues pull in about $7 million from rental and tour income and their total budget is nearly $11 million.

McLaughlin said Spaceport generated $3 million in income and other tax revenues for New Mexico, in a September 2022 presentation.

Both Virgin Galactic and Spaceport officials have not announced any dates for the long-promised start for commercial flights. Virgin Galactic has promised commercial spaceflight operations for the past 15 years.

Officials mum on dates for 2023 spaceflights after Virgin Orbit bankruptcy 

Virgin Galactic’s first fully-crewed flight took off from the Spaceport in May 2021. Despite the company’s insistence that the flight was a “success,” the Federal Aviation Administration grounded the plane after an investigation found the rocket dipped below its allowed airspace.

The most recent plan, according to a February earnings call, is to fly members of the Italian Air Force in a manned mission. After that mission Virgin Galactic would start up commercial flights for the 600-plus people who’ve purchased a spot in line. Company officials have not announced any date, for the flights to start. 

Most launches from Spaceport America have occurred during SA Cup events, a university-level rocket competition. In their most recent audit, officials said of 400 rockets or projectiles launched at spaceport, 321 of those – about 80% – were university student rockets.

Correction: this story has been updated to reflect a April 24, 2023 statement from Virgin Galactic spokesperson FAA did not mandate additional test flights, but only grounded Virgin Galactic.

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Danielle Prokop
Danielle Prokop

Danielle Prokop covers the environment and local government in Southern New Mexico for Source NM. Her coverage has delved into climate crisis on the Rio Grande, water litigation and health impacts from pollution. She is based in Las Cruces, New Mexico.