The Southwest's Spaceport Scorecard

Southwest Public Policy Institute

After more than two decades, there’s precious little ‘return’ from all the ‘public investment.’

Is Virgin Galactic finally for real? The politicians and bureaucrats who have subsidized and apologized for Spaceport America for longer than many New Mexicans can remember certainly hope so. Their facility's "anchor tenant" conducted its "first commercial fight" last month, and plans to fly "three private passengers" to "space" next month.

Skepticism about Richard Branson's "spaceline" is abundantly warranted. Having failed, spectacularly, to deliver on its promises of frequent flights, thousands of jobs, and the establishment of the Land of Enchantment as a global hub for suborbital tourism, one would be foolish to have even a morsel of confidence in the company's predictions.

The odds of Spaceport America ever making any fiscal sense remain frighteningly long. But it's important to note that the isolated, woefully unbustling piece of "infrastructure" is hardly alone. Starting in the late 1990s, several states began to bet public money on spaceports, anticipating that air-launched rockets and single-stage-to-orbit vehicles would render the traditional requirement for coastal sites moot. Reality dashed those dreams. The X-33 -- and its follow-on, the "VentureStar" -- died. One after another, space-tourism startups fizzled. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos chose to launch their conventional (albeit reusable) rockets from sites they either owned themselves, or leased from the federal government's legacy complexes along the Atlantic and Pacific.

Over a quarter-century after the birth of spaceports as trendy "economic development," a brass-tacks examination yields sobering conclusions. Herewith, an assessment of the American Southwest's government spaceports.

Mojave Air and Space Port at Rutan Field

Location: Mojave, California

FAA License Issued: June 2004

FAA-Authorized Launches Since License Issued: 13

Comments: Measured by the metric of number of launches conducted since Federal Aviation Administration licensure, Mojave Air and Space Port at Rutan Field scores highest in our region. But it had a sizable initial advantage. In 1985, Newsweek called the area "the world's largest assembly, modification and testing center of high-tech aircraft," and that heritage makes the Aerospace Valley a desirable location for space entrepreneurs to this day.

However, given its history, resources, know-how, and proximity to Los Angeles, results have been rather unimpressive. Many of the startups founded at the Mojave Air and Space Port at Rutan Field withered and died. And the best hope in years for regular launches is now kaput. Virgin Orbit went bust earlier this year -- a preview of what's to come for Virgin Galactic?

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Photo bySouthwest Public Policy Institute

Spaceport America

Location: Sierra County, New Mexico

FAA License Issued: December 2008

FAA-Authorized Launches Since License Issued: 12

Comments: Spaceport America is No. 2 in launches, but No. 1 in subsidies. As the chart below shows, between the 2007 and 2022 fiscal years, charges to "customers" comprised a mere 10.5 percent of the revenue received by the New Mexico Spaceport Authority. (Local, state, and federal subsidies total just under $280 million.) Virgin Galactic remains a very dicey proposition, and other prospects -- e.g., SpaceX, Pipeline2Space, Microgravity Enterprises, UP Aerospace, Starchaser Industries, ARCA Space, Rocket Racing League -- either abandoned Spaceport America, went out of business, or have failed to accomplish much at the facility.

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Photo bySouthwest Public Policy Institute

Oklahoma Air and Spaceport

Location: Washita County, Oklahoma

FAA License Issued: June 2006

FAA-Authorized Launches Since License Issued: 0

Comments: Last month, SPPI popped by for a midday, unannounced inspection of the Oklahoma Air and Spaceport, located on the site of a former Strategic Air Command base. What we encountered wasn't encouraging. Some rather aggressive dogs "greeted" us in the waiting room, and the thinly staffed office was quieter than a library. Fifteen years ago, the spaceport's great hope was Rocketplane Limited, which The Journal Record gushed was "developing a suborbital vehicle that will take civilians more than 62 miles above Earth's atmosphere to experience the sensation of weightlessness and an extraordinary view of Earth from space." The company won $18 million in transferrable tax credits from lawmakers, which it promptly sold for $13 million. (Or $15 million -- accounts vary.) But the windfall wasn't enough. Neither was a merger with Kistler Aerospace, a startup that sought NASA largesse to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. Rocketplane Kistler went bankrupt in 2010. But hey, at least the executive director of the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority "earned" a salary of $108,333.29 in 2022.

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Photo bySouthwest Public Policy Institute

Midland International Air & Space Port

Location: Midland, Texas

FAA License Issued: September 2014

FAA-Authorized Launches Since License Issued: 0

Comments: Over a dozen years ago, some of the Permian Basin's "leaders" thought they could do better than petroleum and natural gas. The Midland International Air & Space Port was created as part of a giveaway to XCOR Aerospace in 2010. Then based in Mojave -- spaceport corporatism can be an incestuous affair -- the company received millions of dollars in what the Midland Reporter-Telegram called "performance incentives, relocation payments and renovations," but filed for bankruptcy in 2017. The following year a city councilor lamented that he was "guilty of voting in favor of every spaceport related agenda item to come to the council in the last four years," but since it "is impossible to have a successful spaceport without spacecraft," Midland needed to "move on." It didn't, of course. The pol was outvoted, 6-1, and the city paid $100,000 to renew its FAA license.

Colorado Air and Space Port

Location: Adams County, Colorado

FAA License Issued: August 2018

FAA-Authorized Launches Since License Issued: 0

Comments: Colorado Air and Space Port intends to "serve as America’s hub for commercial space transportation, research, and development." In 2012, Space News reported that what was then the lowly Front Range Airport "signed a letter of intent ... with Rocket Crafters Inc. for horizontal launch, dual-propulsion, suborbital flight operations." You know the rest of the story. The facility's big news in 2023? Phase 1 of the "Airport Fencing and Security Project" got underway in February, and a pancake breakfast was held in April.

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Photo bySouthwest Public Policy Institute

Houston Spaceport

Location: Houston, Texas

FAA License Issued: June 2015

FAA-Authorized Launches Since License Issued: 0

Comments: Like Mojave, the Bayou City enjoys an enviable space-related legacy. And there's no doubt that an industry cluster exists in the Houston Spaceport neighborhood -- e.g., Axiom Space, Intuitive Machines, Collins Aerospace. But launches? None so far, at what used to be Ellington Field, and none on the horizon.

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The Southwest Public Policy Institute (SPPI) is a research institute built to explore and build on sound, data-driven policies regarding education, crime, and economics that will encourage positive change in the American Southwest.

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