Despite upcoming flight pause, Spaceport officials are still looking up

The New Mexico Spaceport Authority faces some challenges in the upcoming years with the Virgin Galactic upcoming hiatus of near-space tourism flights

By: - February 7, 2024 3:03 am

Lt. Col Alex Carothers assists Gino Reynaldo, a Sergent at Arms, with a flight simulator during Aviation and Aerospace Day at the Roundhouse on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024. (Danielle Prokop / Source NM)

Hot air balloons, model planes and flight simulators lined the Rotunda halls Tuesday, next to banners advertising Space Force, White Sands Missile Range and more during the Aviation and Aerospace Day at the New Mexico capitol.

New Mexico Spaceport Authority executive director Scott McLaughlin worked the booth while bedecked in a celestial body tie, and told Source NM that he was there to talk with lawmakers about the importance of aerospace expansion, and funds for the spaceport.

Spaceport basics

Spaceport America, built in the Jornada del Muerto outside of Truth or Consequences, is a publicly funded spaceport, constructed using taxpayer money, and governed by the New Mexico Spaceport Authority.

Current tenants which maintain an ongoing lease include Virgin Galactic, SpinLaunch, UP Aerospace, AeroVironment and Prismatic. Other contract customers include White Sands Researchers and Developers, Swift Engineering, U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, C6 Launch Systems and Stratodynamics, Inc.

McLaughlin said he didn’t know why the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee recommended a budget reduction for his agency.

“I don’t understand, because we had the best year ever. We had the best metrics. Last year, we had space tourism flights six times, probably the most people on site, we had the most customers,” he said. “So I’m still confused by that.”

In the House Bill 2 version of the state budget, lawmakers recommended $13.1 million dollars, slightly higher than the $13 million budget ask by the executive branch. The nonpartisan Legislative Finance Committee recommended a slightly smaller budget of $12.9 million.

That recommendation would “fully fund” the agency’s request to have 31 staff, but would not grant an additional $400,000 for attorney fees. The LFC’s analysis said that request is a 400% increase, and would include four contracts with attorneys to receive “advice on ongoing lawsuits.”

McLaughlin said the agency has to compile better statistics to show their successes, which he said would help “better convey the vision.”

Scott McLaughlin, the executive director at Spaceport America, pictured at the Roundhouse on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024. (Danielle Prokop / Source NM)

The analysis also noted that since 2018 more than $44 million dollars were earmarked for Spaceport capital outlay projects. As of October 2023, the agency spent only a quarter of that money, about $11 million towards five capital outlay projects.

With the recent hiring of a capital projects manager and two other employees, McLaughlin said he expects the already-allocated capital outlay balances to be spent down.

Virgin Galactic lays off 185 employees; will pause flights from Spaceport in 2024

Virgin Galactic, the space tourism venture, announced layoffs of 73 New Mexican employees along with a drawdown and pause of space-tourism flights in November 2024, as officials say the company is pivoting to a more profitable space plane model.

“There’s a little bit of a disappointment that there’ll be this break,” McLaughlin said, adding that Virgin Galactic officials plan to scale up flights in 2026 using the space planes from one a month, to weekly flights.

Last year, Virgin Galactic officials said they would focus on manufacturing a new bigger “Delta-class” space plane which could seat six people, and fly “twice per week” generating more revenue than the current Unity flights.

On a November investor call, CEO Michael Colglazier celebrated Virgin Galactic’s six commercial near-space flights, which occurred once a month in May through November 2023.

McLaughlin expressed optimism about Virgin Galactic’s timeline and plans.

“I’m still confident they’ll be back with the two new spaceships and ready to fly,” McLaughlin said.

Commercial space flights from the spaceport  were long promised before finally materializing. Virgin Galactic’s  founder and billionaire Richard Branson said in interviews that spaceflights would begin since 2008 and further in 2011, 2014, 2015, and 2018. Branson flew from the spaceport in the first manned crew in 2021. Commercial flights started two years later.

The company performed a commercial flight on Jan. 26, and is expected to have one more this year.

However, the most recent flight did have a “pin detachment” malfunction reported to the Federal Aviation Administration in the days after the flight, according to a press release issued Tuesday.

According to the release, an alignment pin, which holds the suborbital spacecraft to a carrier plane, detached “after the spaceship was released from the mothership,” during flight. The issue was found during a post-flight inspection.

“At no time did the detached alignment pin pose a safety impact to the vehicles or the crew on board,” the press release said.

The company said it is conducting a review with federal officials.

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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.

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