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Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity releases from VMS Eve and then ignites into space over Spaceport America, New Mexico, on Saturday, May 22, 2021. Las Cruces Sun-News

LAS CRUCES – The agency overseeing New Mexico’s Spaceport America will save millions in taxpayer funds after refinancing its 2009 and 2010 construction bonds, it announced Friday. 

The New Mexico Spaceport Authority completed the refunding, in which higher-interest bonds are, in effect, refinanced with a lower interest rate. The $35.4 million refunding of the spaceport bonds led to a reduction from a 4.5 percent annual interest rate to less than 0.8 percent. 

That will save $8.2 million over the nine years it will take to pay off the bonds, the agency said. 

“The savings is not a dividend to the spaceport, but rather a direct savings to the taxpayers of Sierra and Doña Ana counties,” Alice Carruth, a spokesperson for the spaceport, told the Sun-News.

Spaceport America, designed as a commercial spaceport from which anchor tenant Virgin Galactic plans to launch passenger suborbital flights as soon as 2022, was built in Sierra County between 2006 and 2012 with $220 million in public funding. It also maintains business offices in Las Cruces. 

More: Virgin Galactic gets FAA’s OK to launch customers to space

Sierra and Doña Ana counties both approved local taxes to assist in paying back the spaceport’s construction bonds, of which 25 percent may be retained by the local governments for their own use, and were pledged for local education. 

Those taxes ran into controversy, however, when the spaceport used excess revenue from those local taxes to help shore up its operating budget. In February, the state Attorney General’s Office issued an informal opinion that using GRT revenue for operating expenses was improper.

In December, the Doña Ana County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution calling on the state Legislature to fund Spaceport America operations with state dollars and repay the county. 

Refinancing the bonds is an additional step by which new leadership at the spaceport is trying to turn the page. Spaceport director Scott McLaughlin has been on the job since March, following the sacking of the spaceport’s previous director last October. Its former chief financial officer resigned earlier in 2020. 

The Federal Aviation Administration last week approved Virgin Galactic to carry passengers into space, following a successful test flight on May 22.

As years of delays in opening Virgin Galactic’s commercial service contributed to skepticism of the spaceport’s viability, the facility has attracted additional tenants for research and development of various launch technologies, including HAPSMobile/AeroVironment, UP Aerospace and SpinLaunch, while other companies have utilized its facilities as well. 

And with Virgin Galactic in its final test phase and engaging in commitments to fly researchers into space as well as tourists, the tenant company is aiming to begin a regular commercial flight schedule next year. 

Algernon D’Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, adammassa@lcsun-news.com or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.

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