Spaceport is facing crucial vote

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New Mexicans vote this week whether to increase local sales taxes to raise $60 million for the construction of the proposed Spaceport America, 72km (45 miles) north of Las Cruces, writes Rob Coppinger.

State officials admit the ballot will be close and a "no" vote could halt the $198 million spaceport, which is expected to start operations by 2010. The state government and spaceport supporters stepped up efforts in recent weeks to drive home to voters how committed to the project New Mexico's leadership, lawmakers and businesses are.

Last week Virgin Galactic signed a memorandum of agreement with the spaceport authority in preparation for a 20-year anchor-tenant lease worth more than $27 million. Last month the state legislature released $33 million for the spaceport's final design engineering, the construction bid process and initial road construction.

"It's going to be a very close vote. [New Mexico] Governor [Bill Richardson] did not want any questions over our commitment," says New Mexico Spaceport Authority chairman Rick Homans, who is also the state's secretary for economic development.

The $33 million is the first tranche of $100 million of state funding for spaceport construction funding that was not planned to be released until three criteria were met. On 17 March the legislature dropped the third criterion, a US Federal Aviation Administration spaceport licence.

Instead it released the funding based on an approved $198 million construction cost estimate and Virgin Galactic's anchor tenant agreement. Virgin Galactic's lease will include its partially underground headquarters that will be designed jointly with the spaceport facility, which will own all spaceport facilities.