Last week all the residents in my house toggled around various TV networks to figure out which station had the best coverage of Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity’s first fully-crewed space flight, launched from Spaceport America in Upham, a previously little-known locale in the Greater Truth or Consequences Metro Area. Sunday’s flight crew, which included Virgin CEO Sir Richard Branson, gained global attention for the Unity, Virgin Galactic, and Spaceport America. It also cemented first place in the commercial space race for Branson (who humbly noted when asked that being first didn’t matter. Well, no, not when you’re actually first, Sir Richard!).
It was a big, big day for New Mexico, the biggest milestone in 16 years of our commercial space flight journey. Predictably, there’s criticism. The left is cranky about billionaires going to space, because wealth equity and all. And yes, that’s a plural: Jeff Bezos heads into space next week (watch for $14.99 on Amazon Prime!) and Elon Musk, never to be left out of anything outrageously complex and cost-prohibitive, plans his own voyage in September. The right, at least in New Mexico, is mad that state money was spent to jump start the development of Spaceport America, because billionaires should build their own spaceport, and probably closer to Albuquerque where more of us live.
Everyone needs to lighten up. In a state that has had no economic plan for the future for at least three decades, here is something major. And Branson’s plan brings the fastest return which we badly need. Bezos and Musk both want to settle Mars. For now, Branson just wants to set up space tourism; launch people into zero gravity and give them views of the Earth from space, then bring them home. Virgin is an entertainment company after all.
This brings two immediate opportunities to New Mexico: operations and expansion at the Spaceport, and the associated lodging and hospitality industry that will accompany space tourists. That’s a faster build than building a million-person city on Mars by 2050 (Musk’s vision). Virgin has already mentioned building a Virgin-branded hotel for the Spaceport, and it is needed for the traffic Branson wants to attract.
Let me pause here to remind everyone, especially in the Albuquerque area, why the Spaceport is where it is. There are two places in the U.S. with zero-to-infinity air clearance for flight: the White House, and White Sands Missile Range. The Spaceport is adjacent to White Sands. So (with the state’s help, it’s true), there’s now a 2-mile long runway with access to 6,000 square miles of airspace with no air traffic restrictions, with great weather boasting an average of 340 clear flying days per year. Texas will never have that. Neither will California or Florida.
And Upham is 143 miles from Albuquerque and 126 miles from El Paso. So for a major airport, it’s a coin toss, although I am just guessing that the first round of space tourists might be flying private anyway, direct to the Spaceport.
And if the billionaires aren’t going to race to commercial manned space flight, lefty friends, who is? Non-profits? The Heifer Fund? This is a great use of billionaire petty cash. And to my no-state-funds friends on the right, I am sorry. This is the story of state economic development in the 21st century: you want the big players, you got to put some skin in the game. To win the deal, you have to offer the best deal, which means putting up some principal yourself.
About 200 people are employed right now by the Spaceport in New Mexico: 180 by Virgin Galactic, and 20 by the Spaceport Authority. A quick online search shows about 50 more job openings right now, if you include the dozen or so remote (work from anywhere) positions. That’s expected to grow to 500 in three years. That doesn’t include the hospitality and tourism jobs that will come with space tourists, and the larger economic footprint to be felt by Sierra and Doña Ana counties. And the Spaceport isn’t just Virgin’s show. There are three other aviation tenants there, and that number should grow.
Here’s the job opportunity I am most excited about: Virgin Galactic is looking for a communications intern—seeking a junior or senior in college majoring in communications, must live in Las Cruces and spend six months becoming immersed in the Virgin Galactic brand (and by extension, Virgin, one of the world’s top entertainment and travel brands). That’s a once-in-a-lifetime career boost I am dying for some young New Mexican undergrad to pick up. Apply here: virginagalactic.com/careers.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and former Navy officer. She appears regularly as a panelist on NM PBS and is a frequent guest on News Radio KKOB. She lives amicably with her Democratic husband and Republican mother north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.