Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Cargo Cult Revisited

Eight years ago, I wrote about the state of New Mexico's insane desire to build their very own cargo cult.  Now that the state has actually gone ahead and built it, it is time to see what the state got for several hundred million dollars. 

Note:  I was reminded of the topic after reading an excellent series of articles by NMPolitics.Net.  Obviously, I am not the only one concerned about New Mexico’s very own cargo cult.

What is a cargo cult?  During the second world war, natives on several small islands in the South Pacific were suddenly confronted with the advanced technology of the US Army as we set up airfields in order to defeat the Japanese military.  To the islanders, these bases were the sources of unbelievable wealth and abundance.  Even the trash dump of a military base was, at least to the natives, a Super Walmart of treasure.

When the war was over, however, the Walmart closed as the foreigners left.  No more planes full of treasure arrived.  There was only possible solution—somehow the natives had to convince the gods to send the planes back.

The islanders cleared the jungle and built dirt runways.  They constructed bamboo control towers, waved flags, and wore headsets.  Well, the two coconut halves covering their ears looked like headsets.  Islanders tried to imitate the behavior of the soldiers they had seen, hoping the gods would send the cargo-bearing airplanes back to the island. 

Anthropologists call this a Cargo Cult.  In New Mexico we call it a Spaceport.

Let’s summarize the events of the last ten years.

After Burt Rutan won the Ansari X prize by sending a suborbital spaceship into low space twice within two weeks, the billionaire Richard Branson hired Rutan to design and build a larger version of the spaceship to carry passengers into space.  Branson started a new company, Virgin Galactic to market the new industry of Space Tourism.

Rutan’s design would use a large mother ship to carry a new spaceship up to about 40,000 feet, then the rocket motors would ignite, carrying the spaceship to 62 miles above the Earth, to the edge of space.  The spaceship would then glide back to Earth and land on a long runway.  This process is known as a horizontal launch as opposed to the vertical launches such as NASA has done at Cape Canaveral.

It is important to remember that while Rutan’s spaceship actually made it to space, Virgin Galactic is using a completely different vehicle that has not yet gotten close to space.

To accomplish this, Branson needed a long runway at an airport remote enough not to interfere with regular commercial air traffic.  New Mexico would be perfect for that since the state is lousy with long runways left over from wartime flight training.  And since no airline operates out of an airport anywhere in the Southwest quarter of the state and there are large areas of restricted flight zones…you could take your pick of locations.

Branson was not just selling a ride in an overgrown airplane, he was selling a dream.  The would-be astronauts would be ponying up close to a quarter million dollars per flight, and for that kind of money, there is no romance seen in flying out of a dingy industrial park wrapped around a seventy year-old airport outside of Deming, New Mexico.

Richard Branson didn’t become a billionaire by selling ham sandwiches—he was selling a sizzling steak covered with space sauce.  For that, Branson wanted a new custom Spaceport built far from anything familiar, so his customers could fly in on private planes (remember, no airline service anywhere nearby), hop onto the mother ship, take a quick trip to space, land about three hours later and fly away exhilarated, even if slightly poorer.  Branson certainly didn’t want to use any of the three long runways already existing in Southern New Mexico.

Somehow, Branson talked a couple of gullible politicians to push through legislation that provided him with exactly what he wanted.  The state government spent $209 million to build a Spaceport in Sierra County, miles from anywhere.  Both Sierra County and Dona Ana County would raise their sales taxes to pay for operating the new Spaceport.  Despite the fact that the Spaceport is not in Dona Ana County, the citizens of that county would generously pay roughly 94% of the taxes to support it.

As I write this, years and years later, there is still no paved road from Dona Ana to the Spaceport.  And from the middle of the county to the Spaceport is over a hundred miles if you want to stay on a paved road. 

Perhaps we should feel grateful that this Spaceport isn’t twice as big.  Back in 2005 when governor Bill Richardson started to push this project, coincidentally timed to coincide with his campaign for president, he was talking about 5,000 new jobs, three interlocking runways, two towers, and suborbital cargo flights to Paris in three hours.  Evidently, we were going to ship them fresh green chile.

Though considerably smaller than the monster launch facility Richardson predicted, we still built one hell of a boondoggle.  The Spaceport has a single runway—with no taxiways—and one hangar belonging to Virgin Galactic.  The runway runs north/south, despite the fact that the prevailing winds are east/west, meaning that crosswind landings would be the norm…  Well, this place is never likely to be used as an airport anyway, since all the large neighboring towns already have much closer airports where the runways run the correct direction.

The only other significant building at the Spaceport is a large concrete dome housing a fire department with state-of-the-art equipment.  Two firetrucks and an ambulance are manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week—even though Virgin Galactic (or anyone else) has yet to begin operations.  If I’m reading the budget correctly, we spend $2.9 million dollars a year to run a fire department at a spaceport that is not yet in operation.  This is roughly the same amount of money required to run about 40 small volunteer fire departments.  Fire Departments that actually have something to do.  (I hear the Spaceport firemen have gotten really good at removing rattlesnakes from Virgin’s parking lot.)

As for Virgin Galactic…  Well, they say the launches are coming.  Richard Branson has made a lot of such claims, such as the three-day music concert by Lady Gaga that will culminate with her blasting into space.  50,000 people will somehow travel down a two-lane road to be at a concert in the middle of nowhere, with minimal facilities of any kind, while attending the music event of the century.  All of this, according to Branson, will occur three years ago this coming January. You still have time to buy your tickets!

Branson has been promising eminent launches for nine years.  It is time for a little reality.  There have been two versions of SpaceShipTwo built so far.  The first crashed, killing the pilot and injuring the copilot.  The highest altitude attained so far has been thirteen miles—far short of space.  The second spaceship—while it has been tested on glider flights—has not yet flown under power and is a long way from being certified by the FAA for commercial flight.  Virgin is testing its third version of a prototype engine, and there are doubts that this spaceship will ever be capable of flying passengers high enough to reach even "near" space.  While the FAA "strongly suggests" (but does not require) an emergency escape system for such vehicles, SpaceShipTwo has no such emergency system. 

Burt Rutan is a genius.  If Rutan told me he was going to the moon in a galvanized trash can using a rubber band for an engine, I’d beg to be his copilot.  But, Rutan is not going to fix the problems on SpaceShipTwo.  He has retired and his company has been sold to Northrop.  Sadly, I suspect that Northrop is not exactly wild about blasting Lady Gaga into the side of a mountain.  The company building the new spaceships is owned by Virgin Galactic (see above).

Well, if the Spaceport is unlikely to be used by Virgin Galactic, and it won’t be used as an airport, could other space companies use it for horizontal launches?  This is also unlikely, since single stage rockets can't reach space, and multiple stage rockets require a safe place for the primary stages to land.  This is why most spaceports are located near oceans and this is exactly why the US government stopped launching rockets from White Sands and moved to Florida.  While the Spaceport doesn't have a lot of close neighbors, all it takes is one spent first stage landing on one ranch house...or in Las Cruces, or...Deming, or…

While the Spaceport Authority endlessly repeats that its facility is the “first purposely designed Spaceport”, it is far from the only operating spaceport.  There are at least ten licensed spaceports to choose form in just the United States.  Bill Richardson, the former governor who saddled us with this black hole of tax money has lately been working in California to promote its new Spaceport.

The facility is not generating a lot of tourist dollars either.  The lone tourbus company licensed to bring tourists has stopped offering tours.  For the last week, I have tried calling every phone number listed for both the bus company and the Spaceport Authority and either the phones were disconnected, or no one answered, or there was a brief recording.  Tourists who show up unannounced at the gate are refused entrance by armed guards.

Note.  Do not drive out there to see for yourself.  It’s a long drive and for a lot of it, you are out of cellphone range.  There are no bathrooms, no gas stations, or anything else for the last half hour of driving.  This is not a good place to have car trouble.

The Spaceport has generated some income.  It was used as a movie set and a motorcycle company filmed a television commercial there, and a few companies used it briefly as a research location.  While the Spaceport Authority does not like to release a lot of details (despite the fact the facility is owned by and financially supported by the taxpayers), it appears that the facility generated $1.6 million in income for at least one year.  This is far short of the millions a year the facility costs to operate.  And don’t forget the interest the state is paying on those bonds sold to finance construction.

The bottom line is that the state spent hundreds of millions of dollars on pure speculation—and continues to spend the taxpayers' money on this!  We speculated that if we built a spaceport, it would attract rockets.  So we went out in the desert and constructed a giant purple martin house and sat back waiting for the birds to fly in carrying bags of gold.

In other words, we are a cargo cult.


  1. Field of Dreams was a terrible movie and resulted in so many of those monumentally expensive "Build it and they will come" projects that someone should sue Kevin Costner and Phil Alden Robinson and the Gordon brothers who wrote it. That movie has been quoted more times in the meetings that led to massive failed projects and tax boondoggles than anyone's ever quoted the Bible as a reason not to fornicate.

  2. I can't tell you how many times I've sat in a nonprofit board meeting and heard a board member quote that "If we build it they will come..." line as an excuse for some doomed capital campaign to build some beautiful but useless building. I wanted to smack 'em when they did that. But if you tell those guys the truth, they tend to fire you, because that's not what they want to hear.

    The truth is that if they come, you must build it. The movie had it backwards. If a bunch of space companies came looking for a place to launch from, then okay. SpaceX is looking to build a launch site in South Texas along the coast where spare boosters don't come crashing down on people and where the tax environment is much much more friendly and where we have a lot of experience in the field.

  3. That's where a spaceport should be built. A place where companies want to launch rockets.

  4. From what I hear, Houston is building one at the old Ellington AFB. Even as you read this, Bill Richardson is probably trying to get a job to promote it.

  5. Probably.
    A recycled AFB makes sense at least.
    Perhaps Texas is still planning to secede and wants to keep a foothold in Earth orbit.