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If you wonder if everyday people can make a difference in New Mexico, think of the Virgin Galactic spaceflight of June 29, the first commercial manned spaceflight out of New Mexico.
I know what some of you are thinking: “What?! Everyday people? That’s a billionaire’s playground for Richard Branson!”
True, the dream and beginning of Virgin spaceflights came from Branson the billionaire. But the reality of work happening from Spaceport America was influenced by everyday people, many of them Las Crucens, working at the State Capitol in Santa Fe in 2012 and 2013.
You may know this about New Mexico, but we have a historically pesky habit of shooting ourselves in the foot.
Even though the spaceport opened in Sierra County in 2011, funded in part by an optional tax voters passed in Sierra and Doña Ana counties, space businesses were not flocking to come to New Mexico for their projects.
One reason was an obscure loophole in the fine print of Spaceport America rules and regulation, specifically some language that was not there. Missing was a supply chain protection. This meant if something went wrong at the spaceport, liability could be legally sought all the way up and down the supply chain. So, if a rocket crashed, anyone could be sued, including the makers of the screws that hinged the seats and, presumably, the makers of the stickers on the outside of a vehicle.
A simple fix, right? I mean, not many people had written spaceport language at that time. New Mexico legislators could go back to the Roundhouse, fix the language and we’re off. But no. New Mexico legislators not only didn’t fix it, they actively voted against it. Not once, but twice.
That’s when a lot of people in the state, knowing the investment we’d made into the spaceport, and knowing the economic development potential, said enough is enough. Ahead of and during the 2013 legislative session, proponents made their case with lawmakers. Organized groups, including the Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce, presented their rationale. Grassroots individuals pleaded the cause.
Eventually the loophole was closed. In the intervening time, however, several other states got into the spaceport business, though none could offer what New Mexico could: invaluable air space next to the restricted White Sands Missile Range, an elevation essentially making “the first mile free,” and prevailing clear skies and mild weather.
Tragedy struck Virgin Galactic the next year, when a test flight in California killed a co-pilot and badly injured the pilot.
The legal and experimental setbacks probably cost Virgin Galactic a decade in their progress.
VG’s successful June 29 flight does not mean it’s all smooth sailing ahead, but it sure is promising, and perhaps more important, a demonstration to many other companies worldwide who could take advantage of the benefits of Spaceport America.