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New Mexico mulls sale of first US commercial spaceport (and LOHAN launchpad)

Virgin Galactic accident casts questions over site's future

A New Mexico State Senator has proposed to sell off Spaceport America, saying the site has no viable business model – while claiming that Virgin Galactic may be in breach of contract after a disastrous spaceplane flight ended in death.

The spaceport opened for business in 2006 but has seen hard times, hosting just 21 vertical launches in that time. State Senator George Muñoz (D) told the senate's Corporations and Transportation Committee that it was time to look again at the spaceport's future in light of its recent history.

"We've invested $220m in the site and now there's evidence the operators have used money that was supposed to be paying off the bond to fund operations at the spaceport," he told The Register. "They say the spaceport supports 1,400 jobs, but we can only track 33 in all."

The spaceport suffered a massive setback in October last year when key sponsor Virgin Galactic lost its only spaceplane in a test flight over the Californian skies.

A mistaken deployment of the aircraft's braking system ripped it apart, killing one test pilot. It will be at least a year before a new aircraft is built.

"Right now we bet everything on the ace of spades and now it seems we don’t have it in our hand," Senator Muñoz said.

In a statement to El Reg, Christine Anderson, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, pointed out that the facility generated just over $1.6m in income last year and that this can be expected to increase further.

"I think some legislators are impatient to have the commercial space industry literally take off! As others have said, space is hard and taking commercial passengers to space requires a great deal of due diligence," she said.

"The sentiment to 'sell the spaceport' is not widely embraced," she contined. "In fact at the hearing of the bill no one except the Senator who proposed the bill spoke in its favor. In contrast, there were many who spoke against Senator Muñoz’s bill to sell the spaceport."

The motion to sell the spaceport will have to be considered by the state financial committees and legislature and would be at least a year off, Muñoz said. The ideal solution would be for a private company to run the facility, renting the site to firms like SpaceX and Boeing for testing.

El Reg has a dog in that fight. Our Low Orbit Helium Assisted Navigator (LOHAN) spaceplane is currently awaiting clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration for launch from Spaceport America and, bureaucracy willing, should be able to fly this spring. ®

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