Gov. Susana Martinez sacked the entire New Mexico Spaceport Authority Board of Directors on Friday. Two days later, the Albuquerque Journal published an investigative report exposing construction delays, poor planning, and weak managerial oversight on the $209-million desert spaceport outside of Truth or Consequences.
Martinez, a Republican took over from Democrat Bill Richardson two weeks ago, said the project needs a fresh start as she sacked the board members.
“There’s no question that the Spaceport can bring jobs to New Mexico, but long-term success will require the right leadership,” Martinez said in a statement. “Given its significant costs, I believe that developing the Spaceport to its full potential requires more robust private investment and new leadership to make necessary adjustments.”
Members of the six-person bipartisan board were told they would be able to reapply for their jobs. One Republican member of the board, D. Kent Evans, has said he will reapply.
Martinez’s decision to dismiss the board came a week after she forced out NMSA Executive Director Rick Homans, a Richardson appointee. She has appointed a six-member Spaceport Transition Team that will oversee an audit and thorough review of the Spaceport America project.
The new governor has said she is concerned about whether taxpayer’s money is being well spent on the desert spaceport and wants to limit the state’s future spending on the project. The state government and local taxpayers are footing the bill for the $209 million facility, from which Virgin Galactic will send tourists on suborbital flights.
On Sunday, the nature of her concerns about the project surfaced in an article in the Albuquerque Journal. The newspaper reports that Gov. Richardson sent an adviser, Eric Witt, to visit the spaceport in April. His report indicated that construction was mostly on schedule but that the project faced a number of significant problems:
For instance, because of the cost and scope of the facility, the project was separated into 14 bid packages with no single general contractor “running the show,” the memo stated.
That allowed New Mexico companies to bid on the work but left the state Spaceport Authority “holding the bag in terms of ultimate liability for cost, job completion and quality control/assurance,” he wrote.
“NMSA management is not fully equipped to deal with this,” Witt added. He noted that the private project manager hired “has no liability for cost or completion.”
Witt cited delays in the construction of the terminal-hangar building even back then. It still isn’t finished.
Part of the problem, Witt wrote, was that the executive director hadn’t been at the spaceport on a daily basis and hadn’t been engaged enough with prime contractors, key local figures, and Spaceport suppliers.
NMSA Executive Director Steve Landeene resigned days after Witt wrote his memo. At the time, officials explained his departure as resulting from a potential conflict of interest stemming from Landeene’s interest in purchasing a ranch adjacent to Spaceport America.
The Journal quotes Landeene as saying that he was unaware of Witt’s memo and insisting that the project was on schedule and under budget without project management problems.
Homans took over in June. He told the Journal that he resolved some of the problems Witt found.
As executive director, Homans said he improved project management, started the bid process to hire spaceport operators, and negotiated agreements with White Sands Missile Range and the Bureau of Land Management, whose approval for right of way was needed to bring electric power to the site.
Although Martinez is eager to avoid major state contributions to Spaceport America in the future, there is one item that might require $10-$20 million of additional spending sooner rather than later. The spaceport lacks a runway for crosswinds landings, something that might be required for Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, which will touch down without power.
Homans told the Journal that “some” wind research has been done at the Spaceport America site but not enough. SpaceShipTwo is currently undergoing glide tests in Mojave, Calif., so its flight envelope is still not fully known. Current plans are to fly the eight-person space plane in the morning, when winds are light.