NEW Mexicans are learning an expensive lesson in “Music Man”-style business development, one that is sadly familiar to Oklahomans as well.
British businessman Richard Branson urged New Mexico officials to spend more than $200 million to develop a futuristic spaceport, saying his Virgin Galactic company would then make the site a launching point for space tourism. New Mexico officials took the bait in 2005.
Today, New Mexico's Spaceport America is nearly complete — and almost completely empty. And Virgin Galactic is hinting it may go elsewhere if New Mexico lawmakers don't provide liability exemptions for the company's suppliers. Virgin Galactic is now considering a spaceport venture in the emirate of Abu Dhabi.
If this story sounds familiar, there's a reason. Oklahoma entered the same game in 1999 with creation of the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority. The idea was to turn an abandoned air strip near Burns Flat, which at 2.5 miles was one of the longest on the continent, into a site for future space tourism.
Rocketplane Global was awarded $18 million in state tax incentives to become the spaceport's anchor tenant. By 2010, Rocketplane was bankrupt and the Burns Flat site remained mostly shuttered.
It's worth recalling that officials with the Oklahoma authority were namedropping Virgin Galactic as a possible tenant in 2011, but worried New Mexico might lure the company there. Oklahomans can be thankful for that missed “opportunity.” It's also noteworthy that Virgin Galactic is demanding liability exemptions for suppliers, since that issue was cited by one opponent of the Oklahoma project.
Former state Rep. John Wright, R-Broken Arrow, often argued that liability issues would be a huge problem for any space tourism business launching in Oklahoma. In a 2007 debate, Wright declared, “We're not going to launch rockets from populated parts of the country.” He stressed that there's a reason NASA flights launch off the Florida coast.