Is Spaceport America taking flight?

New Mexico’s investment in Spaceport America is a long way from spurring creation of the 5,000 new jobs then-Gov. Bill Richardson promised state lawmakers and voters in Doña Ana and Sierra counties a decade ago when they agreed to provide about $220 million to fund the project.

At the time, officials envisioned a new commercial space economy that would transform southern New Mexico and help the state become less dependent on the oil and gas industry. Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, would make its home here. The state would attract other space companies. Funding for space-related K-12 education programs would create a pipeline to help New Mexico’s kids snag the new jobs and be able to stay in New Mexico, if they chose.

The state took a risk back then, constructing the first facility anywhere that was designed and built for commercial spaceflight. But Virgin Galactic’s struggles to complete SpaceShipTwo have delayed the level of activity officials anticipated. The commercial space industry is highly competitive, and Florida and Virginia are among the states now building successful partnerships with other space companies. Skepticism among some public officials in New Mexico has also slowed Spaceport America’s progress.

Though today’s reality is far short of the vision laid out years ago, a months-long investigation found reason for optimism. The spaceport is spurring tourism and has created some jobs in southern New Mexico. Experts suspect the spaceport’s impact on the economy may already be greater than it estimates. Many officials are optimistic about the spaceport’s new CEO, Dan Hicks, who took the reins in September after a 34-year career at White Sands Missile Range.

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