Since Spaceport America opened in 2011 north of El Paso as the launch point of humanity’s dream to explore space, the fulfillment of its promise has perpetually lied at some moment in the near future.
But the high-tech facility’s anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic, which intends to take tourists to the edge of space, is moving in after years of delays, and spaceport CEO Dan Hicks says “the stars are aligning.”
If you’ve ever watched any science fiction, you’ll know that humanity’s survival depends on getting cozy with the vast, endless expanse of black more commonly known as outer space.
For centuries, Homo sapiens have dreamt about what lies just out of view. But as humans charge forward into the third decade of the new millennium, private space companies have taken the lead and are making those dreams closer to reality than ever before.
Dan Hicks’ job is situated right against that blurry line. As the CEO of Spaceport America, a massive, publicly funded facility for private vertical launches, Hicks oversees work that might ultimately make space travel a reality on a larger, more affordable scale.
Hicks, a graduate of Las Cruces High School and New Mexico State University, spent 34 years working at White Sands Missile Range before retiring from the Defense Department and heading next door to Spaceport America.
He said his time at White Sands was like a long training session for his current role at the spaceport, which is 100 miles north of El Paso, near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
Hicks became CEO in 2016.
Spaceport America has faced scrutiny over its use of public funds and efforts to keep many parts of the operation from the public, despite the use of taxpayer dollars.
The spaceport, which sits at 4,600 feet above sea level (“The first mile of space is free,” Hicks jokes), was completed in 2011 using $212 million in New Mexico taxpayer dollars.
There are now about 45 full-time employees at Spaceport America, including crucial workers like maintenance crews and firefighters. Its anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic, will be completely moved in by the end of 2019, bringing along about 100 employees who will live and work in the area.
The California-based space company was founded by British billionaire Richard Branson in 2004 to ferry tourists to space but has been plagued by delays for years.
In his off time, Hicks, 60, enjoys eating at local restaurants, playing soccer and spending time with friends and family.
He spent an hour talking to El Paso Inc. about Virgin Galactic’s move, the return on taxpayer investment and what’s on the horizon for the nation’s first (but no longer only) spaceport.
Q: Spaceport America has been open since 2011. What progress has been made?
We’re really living in exciting times. To date, we’ve launched 301 times out of the vertical launch area. Since 2006, we’ve been launching at Spaceport America, which is a little known fact as I go around the state. There’s a narrative out there that people don’t realize we’ve been operating and launching successfully for a number of years now.
With the excitement of the space industry, and what Virgin’s getting ready to do, that brings a whole new dimension.
We continue to do very successful suborbital launches at the vertical launch area. We’re getting ready to bring one of our foundational partners home, Virgin Galactic, to continue their final flight certification testing of White Knight II and spaceship. Pretty soon they’ll be ready to be operational and do a lot of great research and have a whole bunch more astronauts.
We have seven active companies at Spaceport, including Virgin Galactic. We have XO Xerospace, UP Aerospace, Energetics, SpinLaunch, AVO, which just finished some rocket testing and continues to do some rocket thrust testing out there, and Boeing with their CST-100 Starliner program. They’re doing some testing of their capabilities as they get ready to support a crew transportation vehicle of astronauts for NASA.
Q: Virgin Galactic had announced quite a while back that they were headed to Spaceport America, and plans stalled. What caused it to ramp back up?
I think the biggest thing is, starting back in December, they had their successful flight back into space. A couple of months after, they had another successful flight. I think it gave confidence to the leadership that as they looked at the data, they said: Why should we wait? While we’re outfitting the interior of the spaceship, why don’t we move all the logistics and families during the summer, and we’ll finish our flight tests in New Mexico.
It’s a perfect alignment that allowed them to do that. It was a wonderful decision by Virgin, and it’s good for the region. Now we have 100 families in the region in the high-tech sector working in the space industry with us.
Q: Are there benefits for El Paso related to the spaceport?
The thing about having a launch site in the middle of this region that’s so lucrative to the space industry is that it allows us to get access to space and do things in space. The whole supporting manufacturing, service support perspectives, command and control, logistical support, are all tied into an actual launch. When you think of where the space industry is, there’s about $400 billion being spent globally, and the predictions are that it’ll jump close to $3 trillion over the next few decades.
A good example: When Virgin Galactic starts flying and starts its operations, there’s going to be people coming in from all over the world as we get more astronauts getting the space experience, whether through research or tourism. Everyone will be flying into the major hubs, in El Paso and Albuquerque. They’ll be spending time there, going to restaurants and hotels.
The piece that’s probably more enduring and important is getting these smallsat (small satellite) launches operating out of the spaceport. That’s when you start to work the supply chains and support engineering service chains that will allow the payloads to be integrated and launched here onsite.
Q: What are some recent changes on the ground that are enabling more deep space exploration?
At the federal level, the vice president has reconstituted the National Space Council. It’s a council that used to exist in the 60s, but we haven’t had it in place for about 25 years. The vice president brings together cabinet secretaries and defines clear space policy going forward. The vice president got the departments of transportation, commerce, defense, the intelligence community and the key cabinet secretaries together to decide what we are going to do as a nation. All of them are working together on a clear vision on the federal level of what our space policy is going to be.
They proclaimed at the fifth Space Council that we’re going to be on the moon in 2024 with a permanent presence with the world’s first female, an American, on the moon, in five years.
About 10 to 15 years ago, we had these visionary billionaires start getting into space, people like Sir Richard Branson. Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson made a partnership to build the spaceport. Then you had billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos who started pumping dollars in.
But recently the change is that Wall Street has woken up, and they’ve really looked at the space sector globally and realized it’s not just these visionaries anymore. All the stars are aligning, no pun intended.
Q: The spaceport cost about $210 million in taxpayer dollars from one of the country’s poorest states. What are the returns for New Mexico taxpayers?
The return on investment isn’t money that comes directly to Spaceport America as much as it is jobs being created and the ability for our youth to be able to grow up in New Mexico, in El Paso, and have a high-tech job here in the region.
We continue to grow companies; those are jobs that are developing technologies at Spaceport America. That investment was probably one of the wisest things our leadership in New Mexico did because that’s what put this region in the space sector.
Let me embellish that fact a little bit. Right now, there are 12 other licensed commercial spaceports. Spaceport America and Oklahoma Spaceport were the first two licensed. So why do all these other states want to quickly develop spaceports and get in the game? It’s because they realize that this is a huge economic engine going forward.
The great advantage we have is that we have restricted airspace. All those other places don’t. We have a foundation of infrastructure where we can do the full gamut of space activity.
Q: Where do you see Spaceport America in 10 years? 20? 30?
In 10 years, I see a lot of low-earth orbit to support smallsat operations. We’ll continue to do suborbital flights. But I see us supporting a huge demand for getting smallsat, cubesat, and microsat up into space. And I see us supporting technologies that allow us to do that lower earth orbit support out of Spaceport America.
In 20 years, I see us developing a hub, port-to-port travel globally, where technologies and capabilities will allow us to quickly provide transport from one point around the globe to another in a short amount of time.
In 30 years, I see a full suite of a space commerce hub, where capabilities are taken up to the cislunar (between the earth and the moon) environment to support our permanent presence on the moon and Mars as we continue to explore deep space.
Ideally, in 30 years we’re supporting space habitats similar to the International Space Station. But a lot of them will have manufacturing capabilities and be habitats where people actually live. Maybe they develop pharmaceuticals or certain materials, chip technologies.
Q: How does one become a CEO of Spaceport America?
When my predecessor was getting ready to retire, I was a technical director at the time. She reached out at White Sands Missile Range, where I was working, to say I needed to throw my hat in the ring. The Spaceport Authority board did a nationwide search. There was a lot of interest in that position locally and nationally.
I was fortunate to rise to the top along with some CEOs with space companies back east. The three of us were sent up for final approval by the board, and I was the No. 1 selection, which was kind of awesome.
The advantage I had was I knew the region well having been in leadership at White Sands Missile Range. I’m glad they did a competitive nationwide search as they determined who would be the next CEO. I was in a good position where I could retire from the Department of Defense, and so I did.
Q: Have you always been interested in space?
When I was a kid in school, I just wanted to have fun and play sports. I was a big kickball and soccer player, just loving life. It wasn’t until I was in college that I had an Army ROTC scholarship at NMSU and started thinking about what I wanted to do.
When I got into White Sands Missile Range that’s when I started looking at my long-term plan. There are a lot of things that interest me.
I applied to NASA in the 80s and early 90s three different times to be an astronaut. I kept getting a very nice form letter from NASA for three different cycles, saying I was one of 2,000 highly qualified applicants but that this year we’re only taking 12.
Q: Does the spaceport have space available for smaller-scale, education ventures?
We do. It’s a large part. When I look at the statute that created the Spaceport Authority, one of the pillars is supporting STEM in schools in the region. One of the neatest things we do is the Spaceport America Cup, which is an intercollegiate rocket engineering competition that draws universities from around the world.
We had a consortium that came out here of students from Duke, West Point and Princeton that got together online and formed a nonprofit to launch a rocket. It’s what’s kind of unique about Spaceport America. Because we’re so blessed with our restricted airspace and our partnership with White Sands, we can provide a venue for students around the nation and world where they can come and launch and develop capabilities to go to the Karman line and beyond.