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New Mexico spaceport still needs FAA license

An artist's conception shows a fleet of suborbital spaceships at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
An artist's conception shows a fleet of suborbital spaceships at Spaceport America in New Mexico.Virgin Galactic / Foster + Partners
/ Source: The Associated Press

Gov. Bill Richardson's administration hopes to secure critical licenses and leases for a planned spaceport in the months ahead, which will clear the way for construction to start.

The $200 million spaceport — known as Spaceport America — received a major boost this week when voters in Sierra County approved a tax levy to help pay for construction of the project. The spaceport is planned for a site in the county about 30 miles southeast of Truth or Consequences.

"We have a huge amount of work ahead of us still," Kelly O'Donnell, head of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, said Wednesday.

The state plans for the spaceport to become operational in the spring of 2010.

For that to happen, the state needs the Federal Aviation Administration to issue a site license for the spaceport. Construction cannot start until the FAA issues a license.

A lease agreement also must be signed with a company that intends to make the spaceport its hub for space tourism. The company, Virgin Galactic, is owned by British billionaire Richard Branson, who plans to offer suborbital rocket flights at about $200,000 a person.

Before the FAA will issue its license, the agency must sign off on an environmental impact statement for the spaceport site in southern New Mexico.

"We are shooting for the end of this year for the EIS," O'Donnell said.

The FAA license is expected to follow within a few weeks after the decision on the environmental impact study.

O'Donnell said she expects a 20-year lease with Virgin Galactic will be approved by the end of the year.

The state is negotiating a "development agreement" with the company. The agreement outlines the relationship of the state and the company during design and construction of the spaceport and will commit the company to signing the lease within a certain time. O'Donnell said she hopes the agreement soon will become final.

"We're working very hard to keep our schedule for construction parallel with Virgin Galactic's schedule for development of the actual spaceport," O'Donnell said. "We certainly don't want to have a great big ... spaceport with no anchor tenant. They don't want to have a spaceship without a spaceport."

The spaceport tax in Sierra County was approved by 66 percent of voters, according to unofficial but complete returns.

Sierra County's vote was important because it ensures the creation of a regional taxing district that will provide about $59 million for construction of the spaceport to supplement state financing. Dona Ana County approved a gross receipts tax levy last year but approval of two counties was necessary to establish the district.

"Because of this vote, the spaceport is a reality," Richardson said at a news conference on Wednesday.

The quarter-cent tax will add a 25-cent charge to a $100 purchase. Revenues from the tax district will go to back bonds.

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The legislature has provided more than $100 million for the spaceport but it's conditioned on several requirements, such as an FAA operating permit. O'Donnell said the administration will ask lawmakers next year to provide additional money for spaceport road construction.

Virgin Galactic is teaming with aerospace designer Burt Rutan to build a craft that will take passengers 62 miles above Earth, where space begins.

The company offered to fly one resident each year from the Sierra County area on a free suborbital flight if voters approved the tax levy. Richardson said he saw nothing improper in the company's offer but maintained it wasn't the deciding factor in approval of the tax.

"This is an investment in the future," Richardson said of the spaceport.

He said the state will lobby Congress for increased federal money for commercial space projects. The governor's office also released a letter from NASA Administrator Michael Griffin that Richardson described as a "stamp of approval" for the spaceport. The governor met with Griffin earlier this month during a trip to Washington, D.C.

"NASA supports a strong network of commercial facilities across the United States for both orbital and suborbital launches," Griffin wrote. "We believe that these new facilities will help to keep our nation competitive in the growing global marketplace for space launch service and ensure America's position as a leader in space exploration."

Griffin commended the governor for "your efforts to strengthen New Mexico's position as a leading center for commercial space activities."