Thursday, December 15, 2005

ROUNDHOUSE ROUND-UP: N.M. TAKES UP SPACE

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
December 15, 2005



At a star-studded event at the Eldorado Hotel (well, Victoria Principal of Dallas fame was there) Wednesday morning, Sir Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Companies (and star of his own reality t.v. show) joined Sir Bill Richardson to announce a plan to build a $225 million space port in southern New Mexico.

Virgin Galactic is already selling $200,000 tickets for two-and-a half hour trips to space. Principal has already has paid for the first flight.

Of course the guv has to go through the formality of convincing the Legislature to go along with setting aside $100 million over the next three years for the project. Legislative leaders at the announcement seemed agreeable. But even if the Legislature approves, Richardson will have to convince the voters in conservative southern New Mexico counties to approve a sales tax increase to help fund what Richardson is calling “The Second Space Age.”

After the presentation, I asked the Rebel Billionaire a question that apparently no state official thought to ask:

Will there be discounts for New Mexicans for space rides?


After all, we’re paying for the space port. And we’’d even allow Virgin Galactic to install a huge replica of one of Branson’s irises — which is part of the logo for the company — which would be visible from outer space.

Branson chuckled. “I hadn’t thought about that. I’ll consider it.”

Return to the Moon: Only one New Mexican has any first-hand experience in space travel. That’s former U.S. Sen. Harrison “Jack” Schmitt. In 1974, as an Apollo 17 crew member, Schmitt was the last man to step on the moon.

Schmitt, a geologist by profession, is a long-time supporter of private industry leading the way into outer space. But in a telephone interview Wednesday, Schmitt said the state should be very careful about investing millions of taxpayer dollars in space ventures.

“Ultimately the value has to be sufficient to support private investment,” he said. “If the investors believe they’ll get a return on their investment. I don’t see that the taxpayers, in general terms, should be investing.”

Richardson said that two studies have shown the proposed spaceport would bring thousands of jobs to the state and have an economic impact of $750 million. But Schmitt said the state should have the studies reviewed by an independent company.

Schmitt was a consultant for the state about 10 years ago when New Mexico first started talking about a space port. “I supported the idea of building an airport in southern New Mexico that also could serve as a space port,” he said. An airport would pay for a spaceport, he said.

Several years ago, he helped start a company called Interlune-Intermars Initiative Inc. to attract investors to fund a project to mine the moon. The moon, he says, contains a form of helium called Helium 3, which he says could be used to create a clean energy-source through nuclear fusion.

Schmitt’s book, Return to the Moon, which deals with lunar mining, was published last month.

Monkeys and moon walks: A media handout package at the Virgin Galactic announcement included a “New Mexico Space History Timeline.”

It mentioned Robert Goddard, who moved to Roswell in 1929 to build and test rockets and Werner von Braun, who launched a V-2 rocket into space from White Sands Missile Range in 1946. It even mentioned Enos, the space chimp who orbited the Earth in 1961. Enos was trained at Holloman Air Force Base.

But somehow, the list didn’t mention the only New Mexican to go to the moon.

House Speaker Ben Lujan, however, paid verbal tribute to Schmitt, saying his moon trip was inspiring to all New Mexicans.

Indeed, that moon walk was taken very seriously by voters.

Republican Schmitt beat Democrat incumbent Sen. Joe Montoya in the 1976 election. Many political observers believed the turning point in the race was when Montoya gave a speech mocking Schmitt, saying that a monkey could be trained to go into space.

Schmitt lost to Democrat Jeff Bingaman in 1982.

Back to Earth: Eric Serna’s not the only politico around here who knows how to throw a fundraiser.

Art mogul/real-estate baron/would-be-casino operator/former state Board of Finance member and major Bill Richardson money-man Gerald Peters is throwing a benefit for Tax and Revenue Secretary Jan Goodwin.

Richardson is listed as host on the invitation, along with Peters and his wife. Co-hosts include New Mexico Finance Authority Chairman Steve Flance, Transportation Commission member Johnny Cope and longtime Richardson ally Butch Maki.

Goodwin ran for state treasurer in 2002, losing in the Democratic primary to Robert Vigil — who went on to get indicted on federal extortion and money-laundering charges and resign. She said Wednesday her campaign debt is about $71,500.

The Dec. 21 fundraiser starts out with cocktails at Peters’ gallery — which costs $500 a head. A buffet dinner at Peters’ home will cost $1,000.

Asked whether Goodwin will be running for treasurer again next year, Goodwin said, “I like my job. I’m very happy where I am.”

Of course, that didn’t stop her from applying for the treasurer’s job after Vigil quit.

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