By Tom McDonald
State columnist 

Opinion: Let's catch up on space exploration


Last updated 11/3/2020 at 5:43pm

Let’s catch up on New Mexico’s space exploration.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is getting close to its first bona fide commercial tour of space — probably early next year by the looks of it all. It’ll be launched from our own taxpayer-funded Spaceport America in southern New Mexico, on State Trust Land that’s adjacent to the White Sands Missile Range.

Hopefully, the revenue generated inside Branson’s financial orbit will show a good return for New Mexico as well, since the spaceport itself has cost taxpayers somewhere in the range of a cool quarter-billion dollars to build and maintain.

Branson’s plan is to start flying tourists to the edge of space and back, in one of two spaceplanes Virgin has built. Passengers will experience weightlessness and an incredible view of earth and space. Tickets are reportedly running about $250,000 each now, so you’d better get in line before the offer expires.

Actually, a line for the tickets has indeed formed, figuratively speaking. Virgin Galactic reports about 600 people have already bought tickets. Moreover, thousands more have expressed an interest in making the trip, so the line grows longer.

No mistaking it’s a rich person’s indulgence, but it’s still quite an advancement in commercial space exploration, and it will lead to greater advancements to come.

But before the tours commence, trial runs into space are underway. Any day now Virgin Galactic will be launching its third test flight into space, the first to launch from Spaceport America. It’ll carry “research payloads … to prepare the vehicles, pilots, teams and facilities, ensuring that we remain focused on safety as our top priority,” Virgin’s latest news release states.

That’ll be this fall. If all goes well, next year the first commercial flight into space will take off.

If you’ve been reading this column through the years, you may have noticed that I’ve written about Spaceport America and New Mexico’s relationship with space many times. I got a tour of New Mexico’s spaceport several years ago, while it was still under construction, and have since been fascinated with the way space exploration has been commercialized.

There are Branson’s Virgin, Elon Musk’s Space X, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and others — titans of industry who are turning their attention to the greatest of the great beyonds.

Meanwhile, New Mexico is positioned to be a leader in this futuristic space industry. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there are 12 spaceports in the U.S., but only New Mexico’s can accommodate both vertical and horizontal launches.

Plus, New Mexico has state-of-the-art laboratories, three Air Force bases, the White Sands Missile Range and dozens of federal and private space-related operations and companies in the state. One estimate is that the space industry in our state will generate more than $3 trillion over the next 20 years, leading Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to declare last January at a “Space Valley Summit” that New Mexico is “breaking barriers in the space industry.”

Tom McDonald is editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. Contact him at:

[email protected]


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