We need a go getter to get going.
A spaceport is a business, and that business is transportation. There are 5 modes of transportation; ground, sea, rail, air and space. The State of New Mexico has a Secretary of Transportation. I wonder if the Secretary has been involved in the discussion about the qualifications of our next spaceport director. Running a spaceport is a profession. New Mexicans can look at the spaceport as an asset. Leadership will then begin to think about the next Director as one who is qualified to run it. A qualified director would know all about developing infrastructure, including roads, and rail. We need to get on the ball and get a go getter that will help us get going.
She or he will be someone who understands how to run a transportation hub, who can reach out to the growing network of spaceports across the country, and who can build an economic engine around the spaceport. We taxpayers own that facility. Yet, very few people seem to understand, this is a profession where qualified people work in this industry and are available. Three people in the industry have contacted me about this position. They don’t see any job announcement, so I have suggested they call the Chairman of the Spaceport Authority. This is a pretty low key approach to telling people in the industry we want the best person we can recruit to this job.
Mario Diaz, the manager of the Houston Airport System, which now includes Spaceport Houston, is one of the most knowledgeable transportation systems managers I have met. Another qualified and experienced spaceport manager is the former CEO of Mojave Air and Space Port, Stewart Witt. He has offered his services to our Spaceport Authority to help with the search for a new director. I hope we take advantage of this offer.
The professionalism of these two men is based in their approach to the job of managing an airport, within a transportation system context. They operate in a wide world. We are not a niche industry, our next director should be able to interface with other airport and spaceport managers. Most of the spaceport managers will be at the Spaceport Summit in November in Houston. Draw from this community of airport managers.
At the recent Spaceport Authority meeting, it was determined there will be no national search. Rather, a group of people, fortunately locals included, will review names of people recommended for the position. To my knowledge, they are not yet seeking to mine the environment of highly qualified and skilled people who could turn our spaceport into more than a movie set. Hopefully they will reach out to some of the current spaceport directors for guidance on critical qualifications. Do we want a successful spaceport? If so, talk to the managers of other spaceports. This is a small but collaborative group of people. If we need to get some professionals to help us, let’s not be too proud to ask.
There are currently 10 spaceports licensed by the FAA for commercial operations. More states are in the process of getting their licenses. Few are purpose-built, like Spaceport America, and some like the soon-to-be-licensed Colorado Spaceport or Houston Spaceport are underutilized airports. These two suborbital sites, along with Midland Air and Space Port are developing industrial parks to compliment launch operators. Blue Origin’s New Shepard sub-orbital launch vehicle has been to space three times from its west Texas site this year.
The most commercially successful suborbital spaceport, Mojave Air and Space Port, has a diversified industrial park and innovation incubator. It hosts several commercial space companies including XCOR and Masten Space Systems. About 2,000 people work at Mojave. It is next to Edwards Air Force base. Spaceport America is next to White Sands Missile Range. There is a critical mass of talent in both areas that focuses on the space industry’s launch operations.
There are 10 major categories related to spaceport operations. The New Mexico State University library houses the most comprehensive collection of information and documents on the operations of spaceports. It is on the Digital Collections part of the library website. The candidate must have clear understanding of airfield and launch operations. You must fly through FAA-regulated air space to get to space. Therefore, this person likely should have very recent airport management experience. Virgin Galactic just received a commercial operator’s license for the aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, that will carry the spaceship Unity. When Virgin Galactic begins operations at the spaceport it will essentially be operating as and air and spaceport.
The next CEO must be familiar with ground and flight safety operations, and ITAR regulations. These are bare minimum requirements. Virgin Galactic deserves a professional colleague to work with. They cannot be expected to bring an unqualified person up to speed. Virgin Galactic has world-class pilots and former astronauts working with them.
The FAA regulates both airport and spaceport flight operations. Midland, Ellington, Oklahoma, Mojave, Mid Atlantic Air and Spaceport, Space Florida, all are run by experienced air and or launch field managers. Essential to the economic viability of these sites is the integration of operators and support services on the site.
An experienced airport manager would look closely at how the spaceport is structured; it needs to be more aligned with how an airport is structured under current law and authority in New Mexico. This may allow the new director more contracting authority eventually, and more independence in hiring than is currently allowed. Before we hire this person, ask about their familiarity with airport authorities, financial and governance models that make airports successful. We need a person who has demonstrated they understand how to run a transportation facility and who has successfully negotiated contracts and financing packages for a large site like the spaceport. This is a tough job, yet we need someone who is approachable, who knows the industry and likes working the big tough deals. We also want someone who will move to Las Cruces. The last three spaceport directors lived out of state or in Albuquerque. We have a jewel in our desert, and we have the operator everyone wants. Let’s get the person who is up to this task. Let’s get going and get a professional who can get us going.