75% of the suborbital space-tourism market was predicted to belong to New Mexico by 2010.
"To succeed, planning alone is insufficient. One must improvise as well."—Sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov in his masterpiece saga about the birth of a galactic empire, Foundation
The future was late.
On June 19, Gov. Bill Richardson presided over the groundbreaking of Spaceport America, an ambitious project to establish southern New Mexico as one of the foremost hubs for the space-tourism industry. Once finished, the building will look like a giant alien manta ray.
Pitched as a long-term industry booster, the project was expected to produce an economic impact close to $1 billion between 2006 and 2010. That hasn't happened. Political, economic and financial hurdles postponed construction on the facility for more than three years.
New Mexico State University economics professor Anthony Popp, who worked on a state-contracted economic analysis of the project in 2004-2005, says his study's projections still hold up—just change the start date on his timeline from 2006 to 2008.
"Probably the only thing that would cause this timeline not to be followed...is the situation in terms of the economy," Popp says. "But the financing of a lot of this stuff is from these very rich people, and it's probably going to go forward."
Jeff Foust, senior analyst for Futron Corporation, another organization contracted to analyze the project, says Popp has it backward. Aerospace companies have had trouble financing spaceship development, but the good news, he says, is the tanking global economy hasn't impacted the market for space tourism.
"The people who are really interested in flying into space and have the means to pay for the trip typically either still have the means to pay for the trip or they're so interested, so passionate about this, that they're going to find a way to pay for a trip, even if their 401(k)s are a little bit smaller," Foust says. "The question is are they going to be able to go in 2012 or is it going to be more like 2014-2015."
The Spaceport was expected to begin commercial flights as early as 2008, and Foust agrees Spaceport America will be back on track for suborbital flights as early as late 2010. But, he adds, the state shouldn't bank on the old numbers.
"You really need to go back and basically do the study over to look at any other factors that have changed in the market," Foust says. "But, in short order, you could shift all the numbers to the right."