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 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:

  • EXOS Aerospace
  • SpaceX
  • UP Aerospace

The full lease of anchor tenant Virgin Galactic has long been public. You can read the leases here: sued because it felt redacting the leases violated New Mexico’s open government law. In settling the lawsuit, NMSA admitted no wrongdoing.

The spaceport is a state government agency that’s funded with our money. Our ability to scrutinize the project is essential to its need to earn public trust and continued funding. So transparency is critical to the spaceport’s success.

That’s why I sued the N.M. Spaceport Authority, the state agency that runs the spaceport, in August 2018. I had sought financial records the year before as part of a journalistic investigation into whether the spaceport was having a positive impact on our economy. The agency put up walls around public information by, among other things, redacting portions of four lease agreements with tenants and blocking some people, including me, from accessing its Twitter feed.

The victory might be limited, however, due to changes in state law.

In 2018, the state Legislature and former Gov. Susana Martinez gave the spaceport a new law allowing additional secrecy. How much secrecy could end up being decided by the courts, because there are differing interpretations of the law. It may give the spaceport leeway to redact information from lease agreements again.

While I believe it’s clear that the spaceport acted illegally by redacting information from lease agreements when I requested them in 2017, it’s not clear that such redactions would be illegal today. My case had no chance of influencing that reality.

In September 2016, NMSA released an economic development impact analysis about the spaceport. However, the litigation revealed that the analysis didn’t have much to back it up.

The spaceport’s chief financial officer, Zach De Gregorio, said during a deposition that he factored no documents into an analysis that claimed the spaceport was having a positive economic impact in New Mexico. The spaceport contended all along that there were no documents responsive to my request. I was skeptical, but under questioning by my attorney, C.J. McElhinney of Las Cruces, De Gregorio said under oath that there was nothing to provide. He said he took no notes while interviewing business owners and didn’t look at any documents to gather data. He characterized the analysis as his “best guess” of the impact based on his “professional judgment,” saying, “I think there’s value in that.” I’m glad we got that clarified for the public to consider when weighing the validity of the spaceport’s economic claims.

Unfortunately, questionable claims about Spaceport America’s economic impact seem to be a tradition.

When New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Virgin Founder Richard Branson announced in 2005 that Virgin Galactic would become an anchor at the $225 million, taxpayer-funded Spaceport America, they made extravagant promises about what the deal would mean for the state over the next 15 years.

By 2019, Virgin Galactic would be flying its 50,000th passenger aboard its fleet of SpaceShipTwo suborbital spacecraft. And in 2020, the spaceport would become the anchor of a large aerospace cluster generating $750 million in total revenues and employing 3,500 people.

None of these promises was supported by two studies that New Mexico commissioned at the time to support the spaceport. And none of them has come true.

Thus far, Branson’s company has flown exactly zero paying passengers. And Richardson’s promises of a thriving aerospace industry in southern New Mexico has fallen well short of that goal.