Spaceport delays prompt some impatience in New Mexico

Spaceport America's Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space Building is seen near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico May 1, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (Reuters)

By Joseph Kolb ALBUQUERQUE N.M. (Reuters) - Delays in the launch of the first space flights by Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic from a base in New Mexico have drawn criticism from a county commissioner in the south of the state. The inaugural flight had been expected to take place this year, carrying Branson from Spaceport America's 12,000-foot (3.6 km) runway in Sierra County to suborbital space about 65 miles (100 km) above Earth. But the British entrepreneur said in a television appearance with David Letterman last week he now anticipates a maiden launch date in February or March next year. Sierra County Commissioner Walter Armijo said on Monday his patience is beginning to run out. "I was surprised as all heck to hear that on David Letterman and not from the New Mexico Space Authority," Armijo said, adding that his county has not seen any return on the $300,000 per year in taxpayer funding that it has granted the project. Of about 150 people currently employed at the Spaceport, he said, only about 10 were hired from the local community. "They've been delaying this for so long I'm not holding my breath," Armijo said. "They promised jobs, tourism, and housing and we haven't seen any of that. None of the expectations and promises have come true." A Spaceport representative did not return requests for reaction to the county official's comments. The state-run, taxpayer-funded Spaceport was built at a cost of more than $200 million about 30 miles (48 km) from the small town of Truth or Consequences, following a decade of conception and construction. Branson says some 700 "astronauts" have paid $250,000 for a two-hour-plus flight including some minutes of weightlessness. While some local officials may be getting antsy on the ground, Billy Garrett, chairman of the Dona Ana County Commission, which shares the project with Sierra County, said the safety of passengers must be paramount. "We know getting into space is a long-term investment and it takes time to ensure the flights will be safe," Garrett said. "At some point Virgin will go." Last week, the spacecraft WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) completed a successful two-day test flight over New Mexico and the west Texas desert, the company said. "Bringing WK2 and crew back to New Mexico is part of our ongoing preparations and puts us one step closer to our first commercial flight," George Whitesides, chief executive officer, said in a statement. While Branson puts the finishing touches to his project, which Garrett described as an "anchor," the county commission chairman said efforts also are under way to market the spaceport to companies for other uses. He did not elaborate. (Reporting by Joseph Kolb; Editing by Daniel Wallis)