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Sen. John Arthur Smith told me several years ago that he was sold on the potential for Spaceport America after hearing space industry executives gush about the possibility to conduct secretive testing and research in the remote New Mexico desert.
In the hypercompetitive private space industry, secrecy is a selling point for recruiters looking to lure more new businesses to the spaceport. But for those concerned about government transparency and accountability, that same secrecy is a sticking point.
In 2017, officials at Spaceport American convinced New Mexico legislators to shield companies doing business at the spaceport from the state’s open records law. Those companies will go to other states like Virginia, Texas or California that have passed shield laws if we don’t, spaceport CEO Dan Hicks warned at the time.
Even things like the cost or length of a lease agreement had to be kept secret, because that information would be a “tell to the industry,” Hicks said.
He assured legislators there was no reason for concern. Only the proprietary information of private companies would be shielded. Records for operations at the spaceport would be fully transparent, just like they are for any other state agency, he said.
Desperate not to see their $220 million investment overtaken by the weeds of Sierra County, lawmakers went along with the plan. Now it looks like that was a mistake.
Investigations by the private firm McHard Accounting and the state Auditor’s Office have uncovered a string of alleged abuses and violations at the spaceport.
Hicks allegedly took unnecessary trips at state expense and then fudged his records; circumvented the hiring process to offer jobs to people he had previous relationships with; lied about the existence of a strategic plan; intercepted his staff’s email; and committed numerous violations of purchasing and contracting rules without the approval of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority Board.
Former Chief Finance Officer Zach De Gregorio is both credited for blowing the whistle on the alleged violations and alleged to have participating in some of them. And, former NMSA Board Chairman Rick Holdridge is faulted for a lack of oversight. The audit reports there was literally a rubber stamp available for whenever Holdridge’s signature was needed.
All of this comes at a precarious time for the spaceport. Sen. Smith, who had been able to protect spaceport funding in the past as chairman of the Finance Committee, won’t be there anymore.
He will be replaced by Crystal Diamond, a Republican who has said she is open to the idea of selling the spaceport. Diamond, a resident of Sierra County, said she appreciates the potential value of the spaceport, but believes that potential may never be reached as long as the state government is in charge.
I fear she may be right.
The spaceport was Bill Richardson’s vision. As long as Richardson was governor, the spaceport would get the full attention and enthusiastic support from the highest levels of state government.
But it has suffered from disinterest and neglect in the years since Richardson left office. Those who believed the venture of space tourism would always be a pipe dream got all the validation they needed in the fatal crash of 2014 during a Virgin Galactic test flight.
Hicks deserves credit for leading the transition during the years when Virgin Galactic was grounded. But these allegations point to a need for greater oversight.
Virgin Galactic is about ready to start launches. Business at the spaceport will pick up quickly when they do. The state needs to be prepared to take advantage of this opportunity that we’ve waited so long for.
Walter Rubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.