Anderson: Spaceport America Generated $104 Million*

Richard Branson and his children hang out with Project Bandaloop dancers during the dedication of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space facility. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Richard Branson and his children hang out with Project Bandaloop dancers during the dedication of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space facility in October 2011. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Spaceport America CEO Christine Anderson has taken to New Mexico media to say that things are going great at the spaceport as she steps down this week.

“Spaceport America is alive and well,” she declared in an op-ed in the Las Cruces Sun-News. “It saddens me to read uninformed articles to the contrary.”

I can’t recall anyone writing that the Spaceport America is actually dead, just that it has cost New Mexico taxpayers about $225 million (and counting) without returning any of the benefits the state’s leaders and Virgin Galactic promised when it was launched a decade ago. Residents of two revenue-challenged counties continue to pay a special tax they voted to impose on themselves to support the spaceport long after the levy was supposed to end.


But, perhaps I’m nitpicking here. I guess after 5.5 years in such a difficult job, Anderson is entitled to set up a straw man to knock down. So, swing away.

Anderson lists the following accomplishments of which she is proud:

  • new tenants using the spaceport;
  • 28 suborbital sounding rocket launches;
  • 6 more launches set for the next 6 months;
  • in discussions with three “major” operators for long-term flight testing, “each requiring local support, technical services and construction”;
  • playing an instrumental role in shaping commercial spaceflight laws and regulations as a member of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation;
  • serving as a film set for a movie production;
  • obtaining and maintaining a FAA spaceport license; and,
  • providing tours to visitors from all over the world.

In a similar op-ed in the Albuquerque Journal, Anderson said the 6 upcoming launches over the next 6 months would be conducted by UP Aerospace, EXOS Aerospace Systems and Technologies and “one other new customer” that she did not name.

I feel like I’m forgetting to mention something here. What could it be? Oh, right. The headline. The $104 million. It’s not exactly what you might think:

Within the last year, the Spaceport America brand has generated over $104 million worth of global earned media value for the project and the state of New Mexico. Earned media value means press, social and other media reporting on a company or brand that is not directly generated by the company or its agents, but rather by other entities such as customers or journalists. The value is based on what it would cost to achieve the same results through paid advertising. This exceeds such companies as Starbucks and Amazon!

That’s an interesting figure. How is it calculated? I mean, did they deduct the value of all the negative publicity from all those stories Anderson cited about the spaceport being dead? How did it value the stories that painted it as a a giant publicly-funded boondoggle that taxpayers are still paying for that has yet to produce promised benefits? What about the writers who found the tour lame and overpriced?

However they figured it, one thing is clear: global earned media value doesn’t pay the bills. At least not directly. And in that area, Anderson says Spaceport America still has a ways to go:

This year, we are covering 75 percent of our operational budget through revenue and, next year, we project that we will be covering 90 percent. This means we have almost reached our goal of being self-sustaining.

One thing Anderson does not mention in either op-ed is the spaceport’s entire raison d’etre (reason to be): Virgin Galactic.

Spaceport America was purpose built for Richard Branson’s company to fly tourists into suborbital space. The massive hangar sitting out near the runway was built to house that business. No number of sounding rocket launches, drone flights or film shoots will get around that. If they had wanted to build a sounding rocket range, the state could probably have saved more than $200 million.

Given Virgin Galactic’s frequent delays (flights were to have started in 2007), it’s not surprising Anderson didn’t mention the company. Commercial flights from Spaceport America remain a ways off.

The second SpaceShipTwo is set to begin flight tests this month, with powered tests expected next year. Depending upon the number of flights and any issues that crop up, I would expect a thorough flight test program to consume most if not all of 2017. That would push the first commercial flight from New Mexico by Branson and his son, Sam, into late 2017 or early 2018.

Whatever happens, it’s no longer Anderson’s responsibility. She’s out of there.

* Global earned media value