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  Spaceport upgrades aimed at attracting new customers, meeting growing demand

Scott McLaughlin has big ambitions for Spaceport America; building out the Spaceport's infrastructure is one major step toward realizing them.

The executive director said that the biggest planned infrastructure improvement is a new multi-use building, called the Spaceport Technology and Reception Center.

Refered to as STARC, the building is planned near the Spaceport's entrance. It would allow guests to safely watch flights conducted by Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. (NYSE: SPCE). And, McLaughlin said, tenants and other customers would be able to use the STARC to hold investor meetings, process payloads or run mission control for test flights -- all in one spot.

 "At Virgin Orbit, we look to a day soon when satellites fly to space from Australia," said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart. "We?re thrilled to be working alongside Wagner Corporation, one of the region?s most successful privately-owned companies, to bring the first national orbital launch to Australia. Combining their deep knowledge of infrastructure development and affinity for aerospace with our proven, responsive LauncherOne system, we have all the ingredients to bring spaceflight to Queensland."

It's one example of various upgrades aimed at meeting the needs of early-stage customers. Since startup companies are often strapped for cash to put toward capital investments like hangars or launch facilities of their own, McLaughlin wants the Spaceport to fill that need.

"The Spaceport has to lean forward in terms of making sure our infrastructure is ready for the market," McLaughlin said. "If we can't do that, then [companies] have to go somewhere else."

While the STARC is "going to make a big difference in how we can attract customers," McLaughlin said, it's not the only upgrade planned for the Spaceport.

In the Vertical Launch Area, upgrades to the roads and electricity are set to be done by March. Several new, small hangars are planned for the horizontal launch area (HLA), which could take a bit longer to complete, McLaughlin said.

An August New Mexico Spaceport Authority presentation describes a multi-carrier cell tower and repairs to the Spaceport Operations Center as two other planned projects. Both are set to be completed next year. And the Spaceport is conducting an engineering study for a new taxiway in the HLA that could take four to five years to finish.

Money for these projects will in part come from the New Mexico State legislature, which approved the Spaceport's 2024 Infrastructure Capital Improvements Plan allocating $2 million for the taxiway engineering study and $1.5 million for other infrastructure upgrades.

"The legislature has been very forthcoming and kind to make sure that we do have money for capital improvements and infrastructure development," McLaughlin said. "That process to properly develop the site takes a lot of time and resources."

As outlined in the August presentation, the Spaceport has budgeted $10.8 million in revenue for fiscal year 2023. State appropriations account for nearly $4 million of that projected revenue. But the majority is projected to come from customer fees, leases, utilities and fuel. It's budgeted nearly $7 million in customer revenue for 2023. And because Spaceport facilities have seen an "increased tempo of operations," McLaughlin said, he anticipates surpassing that $7 million number next year.

There are six tenants at the Spaceport right now alongside Virgin Galactic --  AeroVironment, UP Aerospace Inc, HAPS Mobile SpinLaunch and one undisclosed -- said Alice Carruth, the Spaceport's public information officer. That's double the number of tenants in 2019.

The Spaceport is currently in discussion with close to 20 other companies about potential leases, Carruth said, adding that only a couple of those leases are likely to materialize.

But other customers come to the Spaceport on a shorter basis without signing longer-term leases, she said. It currently has three such customers using its facilities.

McLaughlin expects this customer activity to keep growing.

Virgin Galactic announced in a Nov. 3 earnings call that it's resuming test flights at the Spaceport in preparation for commercial activity in the second quarter of next year.

As more customers come in and Virgin ramps up its operations, the Spaceport plans to see increased revenues and create more permanent jobs in southern New Mexico, McLaughlin said.

"Virgin Galactic is still the biggest customer and provides the main revenue stream, but as a Spaceport we serve lots of other customers," McLaughlin said. "We're continually looking for new customers. Our job is economic development in the aerospace industry, so we're looking for anybody who would want to come to the Spaceport or New Mexico."


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