- Associated Press - Thursday, May 26, 2011

SPACEPORT AMERICA, N.M. (AP) - The wind is still whistling through the massive unfinished steel hangar doors at Spaceport America. The exterior is waiting to be clad with custom metal panels, and the hangar floor, where a pair of sleek spacecraft will one day sit, is still dirt.

Construction of the world’s first built-from-scratch launch station for sending people and payloads into space has been stymied by everything from Mother Nature to construction delays brought on by working in such a remote stretch of New Mexico desert.

Still, the director of the $209 million taxpayer-financed project says the state is as committed as ever to finishing the project.

And so is Virgin Galactic, the space tourism venture founded by British billionaire Richard Branson.


“When you think about what we’ve had to build out here, all of it is challenging because we’re building a whole city. There’s water storage, a water treatment plant, getting permanent power out here, everything,” said Christine Anderson, a retired Air Force civilian official who was hired in March as the spaceport authority’s new executive director.

“We’re in the middle of the high desert country of New Mexico. It’s very under developed so building way out here is very difficult,” Anderson said during a bumpy ride from the vertical launch area back to the massive terminal hangar building.

This slice of southern New Mexico is beautiful, but it’s difficult. The few ranchers who live out here call it a no man’s land _ where there’s little water, where only a hardy cow can survive and where the dirt roads are equal parts sand and rutted earth.

Add to that a lack of electricity, unreliable mobile phone service and the fact that the state of New Mexico has ventured into uncharted territory with the construction of the commercial spaceport.

The effort is unprecedented and complicated. Construction is more than a year behind schedule, and there have been building code problems, contractor disputes, costly change orders and weather-related delays.

There was also speculation that New Mexico’s support for the project would wane under the leadership of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who came into office this year on a platform of reining in wasteful government spending and reversing the course that former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson had set.

Richardson was an ardent supporter of the spaceport, saying it would spur economic development, bring high-paying jobs and position New Mexico as a leader in the burgeoning commercial space industry.

Concerns about the Martinez administration having little interest in Spaceport America are unfounded, said George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s president and CEO.

“There are always challenges as you transition between administrations and I think they’re going through some of those challenges right now, but overall we’re pleased and we think things are headed in the right direction,” he said.

Martinez appointed new leadership for the spaceport authority and hired Anderson as the new executive director. The governor acknowledges that New Mexico already has made a big investment.

“She is eager for the spaceport to be successful and bring great returns to our state,” spokesman Scott Darnell said, pointing to the project’s economic and educational potential.

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