Board Fires Spaceport America Executive Director Dan Hicks

Daniel Hicks

The New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) has terminated Spaceport America Executive Director and CEO Dan Hicks four months after he was placed on administrative leave amid an investigation into alleged financial mismanagement and abuse of authority.

The Las Cruces Sun-News reports the board voted 5-1 to remove Hicks after discussing his status in closed session for about an hour. Board members did not comment on the reason for the dismissal.

Hicks, who was hired in 2016, was placed on leave in June after former CFO Zach De Gregorio submitted a complaint that alleged the spaceport CEO had created a toxic work environment and removed adequate internal controls on the expenditure of funds.

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Spaceport America CEO Being Investigated for Alleged Criminal Acts

Daniel Hicks

Some of the allegations against suspended Spaceport America CEO Dan Hicks are of a criminal nature, a New Mexico official has revealed. The Sante Fe New Mexican reports:

A wide range of allegations against Hicks are being looked into, including possible violations of the state procurement code, potential financial mismanagement such as improper spending, alleged disbursement of gross receipts tax revenue for unauthorized purposes and possible conflict of interest, Economic Development Department Secretary Alicia Keyes said.

“After the investigators initially came on and did some interviews, they informed us this is a potential criminal violation,” the secretary, who is also chairwoman of the spaceport’s board, told lawmakers at a Legislative Finance Committee meeting held virtually and in person in Red River.

Hicks, who has headed the spaceport since 2016, was placed on administrative leave in June when former Chief Financial Officer Zach De Gregorio submitted a complaint accusing Hicks of pressuring him to ignore procedures that provide accountability for the spending of public money.

Two separate investigations are underway into the charges and the spaceport’s finances.

Multiple Investigations Ongoing into Spaceport America Finances

Daniel Hicks

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that State Auditor Brian Colón is investigating the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA), and the state Economic Development Department has hired an outside accounting firm to perform an independent forensic audit of the organization that runs Spaceport America.

The investigations followed claims by NMSA’s former chief financial officer that CEO Dan Hicks had pressured him to ignore accounting procedures. Hicks is currently on administrative leave pending the outcome of the inquiries.

Colón said Monday he couldn’t release the complaint that prompted him to open the investigation, but said he began the inquiry in June, one day after former Chief Financial Officer Zach De Gregorio resigned, citing frustration with the New Mexico Spaceport Authority Board’s response to his whistleblower complaint about CEO Dan Hicks’ alleged attempts to get him and others to circumvent accounting protocols.

“Daniel Hicks has shown gross mismanagement and abuse of authority,” De Gregorio wrote in his complaint. “He has consistently applied pressure to the CFO and the accounting staff to bend the rules. This pressure has reached the point where I feel like my ethical ability to act as a check and balance for financial decisions in the Agency is compromised. This has created a toxic environment where there is no longer adequate internal controls at the NM Spaceport Authority, which could lead to fraud.”

De Gregorio also accused Hicks of attempting to block and interfere with his communications with state Economic Development Department Secretary Alicia Keyes and the Spaceport board.

“Daniel Hicks often talks about that it is his money and his authority and he should be able to do what he wants,” DeGregorio wrote in his complaint. “Zach De Gregorio reminds him that it is the State of New Mexico’s money and the board’s authority and the Agency has to follow the process.”

The newspaper also reports that former NMSA employee Karen Barker has filed a complaint saying Hicks had created a toxic work environment and retaliated against her after she complained she was being paid less male counterparts.

Spaceport America Interim CEO Appointed Amid Ethics Investigation

Sunset at the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space” terminal hangar facility at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

The New Mexico Spaceport Authority appointed business development director Scott McLaughlin as interim CEO of Spaceport America as an investigation continues into suspended CEO Dan Hicks.

The Las Cruces Sun News reports:

McLaughlin, an Albuquerque native and New Mexico State University alumnus who began working for the spaceport in 2019, introduced himself at a meeting of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority’s board of directors Friday morning. The meeting was conducted via video conference. 

Melissa Force, who briefly stepped in as interim director, continues to serve as the spaceport’s full-time general counsel. 

Hicks, the spaceport’s CEO since 2016, is on administrative leave pending an investigation into a complaint by the spaceport’s former chief financial officer, Zach De Gregorio.

The complaint, submitted in June, accuses Hicks of undermining internal accounting controls and interfering with communications between De Gregorio and state Economic Development Secretary Alicia Keyes, who chairs the NMSA board. 

Keyes said a report should be available for the board’s review in two to three weeks.

Spaceport America CEO Placed on Administrative Leave

Daniel Hicks

The Las Cruces Sun News reports that Spaceport America CEO Dan Hicks, who has led the organization since 2016, has been placed on administrative leave.

New Mexico Economic Development Secretary Alicia Keyes, who chairs the New Mexico Spaceport Authority’s board of directors, confirmed Thursday that Hicks was on leave pending an investigation, but did not provide further details. 

Hicks did not immediately respond to a query from the Sun-News.

He succeeded Christine Anderson, who served as the spaceport’s CEO from 2011 until her retirement.

Previously, Hicks served for 34 years at White Sands Missile Range, ultimately assisting WSMR’s commanding general and its executive director. The Las Cruces native graduated from Las Cruces High School, earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from New Mexico State University and received an honorary selection to NMSU’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Academy.

Global Telecom Company Signs Lease at Spaceport America

LAS CRUCES, NM (New Mexico Spaceport Authority PR) — HAPSMobile Inc., a subsidiary of Japan’s telecommunications operator SoftBank Corp. (TOKYO: 9434) has chosen New Mexico’s Spaceport America for test operations and development of a specialized communications platform designed to provide internet connectivity to hard-to-reach places around the globe, Economic Development Cabinet Secretary Alicia J. Keyes announced today.

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Governor Appoints 3 New Members to New Mexico Spaceport Authority

Sunset at the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space” terminal hangar facility at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

SANTA FE, N.M. (NM Economic Development Department PR) – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has appointed three new members to the New Mexico Spaceport Authority and re-appointed four other members, Cabinet Secretary Alicia J. Keyes announced today.

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Spaceport America Seeking Additional $92.6 Million for Improvements

Sunset at the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space” terminal hangar facility at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor/Publisher

It’s budget season again in Sante Fe. As usual, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) is seeking money for additional upgrades to Spaceport America.

The Albuquerque Journal has a story outlining a series of requests totaling nearly $93 million. I have helpfully summarized the information in the table below.

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Collaboratory Formed to Promote New Mexico’s Spaceport America During Closed Door Meeting

Sunset at the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space” terminal hangar facility at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Officials from New Mexico, the federal government and Virgin Galactic met last week behind closed doors for the state’s first Space Valley Summit to form a “collaboratory” to promote Spaceport America and the state’s aerospace economy.

The one group not invited: taxpayers who have forked over about $250 million to build the spaceport where Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant. As the Las Cruces Sun News dryly noted

Minutes after [Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham] exhorted the summit to “make sure every New Mexican … knows exactly what is happening here,” all reporters were asked to leave. 

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Spaceport America Releases Unredacted Leases

The Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space terminal hangar facility (center), Spaceport Operations Center (Left) and “Spaceway” (Runway) at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NMPolitics.net and its publisher, Heath Haussamen, have settled a lawsuit against the secretive New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) that runs Spaceport America. The authority agreed to release a group of fully unredacted leases of tenants at the spaceport and to pay the website $60,000.

The released tenant leases included:

  • Energeticx.net
  • EXOS Aerospace
  • SpaceX
  • UP Aerospace
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A Brief History of Spaceport America

Sunset at the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space” terminal hangar facility at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

UPDATED: 8/20/19, 12:08 p.m. PDT

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Sometime in 2020, if all goes according to plan, British billionaire Richard Branson will board Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity at Spaceport America in New Mexico and take the first commercial suborbital space flight in history.

The landmark flight, which Virgin has been trying to conduct for 15 years, will also be the culmination of a 30-year effort by New Mexico to become a commercial space power.

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New Mexico Pours $17 Million More into Spaceport America

Sunset at the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space” terminal hangar facility at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

The New Mexico Legislature was generous to Spaceport America this year, providing nearly $17 million to pay for operating expenses and a series of upgrades designed to allow the struggling facility to attract more tenants.

The funding includes $10 million for a new satellite testing and development hangar, $5 million for a fuel farm, $500,000 for a launch vehicle payload integration facility, and $500,000 to repair and upgrade “electrical, fire suppression, water, sewer, security, mission control, heating, ventilation and air conditioning and building systems.”

The appropriation for the new hangar is contingent on the New Mexico Spaceport Authority contracting with a tenant that specializes in advanced aerospace products and technologies.

The spaceport also received $975,900 from the state’s general fund to fund its operations.

Spaceport America has struggled due to more than a decades of delays that have plagued anchor tenant Virgin Galactic. Richard Branson’s suborbital space tourism company is continuing to test SpaceShipTwo Unity at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The company has not set a date for the start of commercial operations in New Mexico.

 











Spaceport America Privacy Bill Advances in New Mexico Senate

Sunset at the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space” terminal hangar facility at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

A bill designed to shield information about Spaceport America from public scrutiny was approved unanimously by the New Mexico Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday. The vote paves the way for the full Senate to consider the measure.

The bill had been previously approved by the Senate Public Affairs Committee without recommendation. It must pass the Senate and the House before the legislative session ends on Thursday.

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NM State Budget Includes More Operating Funding for Spaceport America

The Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space building. (Credit: Alex Heard)

A  budget approved by the New Mexico House of Representatives would boost the state’s annual contribution to Spaceport America’s operating budget for fiscal year 2019.

Funding from the state’s general fund would increase from $375,900 to $675,900. Spaceport America officials say they need to boost their efforts to attract more businesses to the facility outside of Truth or Consequences.

The budget also includes $10 million “for the planning and construction of an aerospace satellite testing and development hangar,” the bill reads. “The appropriation is contingent on the New Mexico spaceport authority contracting with a vendor specializing in advanced aerospace products and technologies to use the hangar.”

Construction of the spaceport near Truth or Consequences has already cost taxpayers about $225 million. The spaceport was originally built for anchor tenant Virgin Galactic, which has yet to begin flying suborbital space tourism flights from the southern New Mexico facility.

Virgin Galactic is currently testing its second SpaceShipTwo, Unity, at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Richard Branson’s space company expects to conduct several powered flight tests at Mojave before moving test operations to Spaceport America later this year.











Spaceport America Southern Road Project Moves Forward

Sunset at the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space” terminal hangar facility at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

Doña Ana County commissioners have selected a contractor to pave a dirt road to provide easier access to Spaceport America from Las Cruces and other points to the south of the facility.

County staff said the top bidder in a recent procurement process was Mountain States Construction — and county commissioners selected the company in a 4-1 vote.

The move allows Interim County Manager Chuck McMahon to negotiate a contract to build the 23.5-mile road, which could cost up to $15.2 million….

The New Mexico Spaceport Authority only has about $13 million to $13.6 million to build the road on hand because of some expenditures already tied to the road project, said Dan Hicks, NMSA executive director.

But McMahon said there’s a chance the New Mexico Department of Transportation will pitch in additional revenue to reach the $15.2 million mark. That would allow for the construction of a better road, county administrators said.

But even if the extra money doesn’t come through, the road project still would entail “hot mix” asphalt pavement, a “geotextile” fabric used to add structural stability to the road, two arroyo crossings and fencing, according to county documents. It would have a smaller “base course” — or roadway foundation — than if the extra funding is granted.

County officials declined to put any additional money into the road project to reach the $15.2 million mark, saying they would prefer to have the state provide it.

County Commissioner John Vasquez voted against funding the road upgrade, saying that he had difficulty asking taxpayers to spend more on Spaceport America. County residents voted to increase a tax on themselves to help pay for the $225 million project.

Getting to Spaceport America from Las Cruces currently requires driving north of the facility to Truth or Consequences and then turning around and traveling south. The paved road will significantly reduce travel time.