Spaceport America’s outgoing executive director on why she waited five years to give up a one-year gig
In early 2011, the administration of New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez approached Christine Anderson about becoming executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, which runs Spaceport America. Anderson had recently retired from a 30-year civilian career in the U.S. Air Force that included serving as director of several military space offices. She agreed to take the job for a year.
At the time, Spaceport America was still wrapping up construction of its major facilities in a remote section of southern New Mexico for its anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic. The hope then was that Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo would soon be ready to fly from the spaceport. However, delays in its development, including a 2014 crash, forced Anderson to accelerate efforts to diversify the spaceport’s customer base.
Today, Spaceport America’s prospects are improving. That diversification has brought in new customers ranging from aerospace companies to film crews as the spaceport waits for SpaceShipTwo’s arrival, perhaps next year. So, five and a half years after taking the job, Anderson decided it’s time to step aside. In July, she announced her plans to resign, effective Aug. 19.
Anderson, who is spending her final weeks on the job working to line up new customers for Spaceport America, recently spoke with SpaceNews’ senior staff writer Jeff Foust to talk about the status of the spaceport and why now was a good time to leave.
Why did you decide to leave the spaceport?
I signed on for a year when they were transitioning into a new administration. I’d worked 30 years for the Air Force and I said, “I’ll do it for a year. That sounds like fun.” I did, and I just got into it and I couldn’t quit because it was so fun and so exciting to watch what the commercial space guys are doing. It turned into five and a half years. It seemed like it was a good time now, reflecting on what we’ve done. I enjoyed every minute of it.
What is the current state of spaceport activities?
We’re finding that the customers we’re attracting now really enjoy the remoteness of the spaceport. Most of them are in some type of aerospace testing, whether it’s air or space. Unfortunately from our perspective, we sign a lot of non-disclosure agreements, so we can’t talk about some of these customers. It turns out that very hard work we did to build the spaceport has turned it into a very magical location to attract customers.
We’re up to 28 vertical launches there now, and we expect six in the next six months, so the operations tempo is really picking up. We’re also in major discussions with three aerospace companies to do more flight testing.
We beefed up our business development group about a year and a half ago. It’s really paying off in terms of getting customers, both on the aerospace side and also on the non-aerospace side. Our primary business is aerospace but we’re getting a lot more photo shoots, and we had a movie shoot last year.
How closely are you in touch with Virgin Galactic as they prepare to resume test flights?
They’re our anchor tenant here, and some of my folks meet with them every day. I have a monthly meeting with them. In April they came here for a week of exercises. I anticipate that will increase over the next year: coming out and becoming more familiar with our airspace and ground operations. Hopefully this time next year they’ll be here. They’re on the right path and we look forward to having them here.
How much of a factor was Virgin Galactic’s delays in your decision to diversify the spaceport’s business in the last few years?
That’s not the case at all. In order to be viable as a commercial spaceport, no matter who your tenants are, you really are more like the airport model in the sense that you’re going to have multiple customers. That diversification, in not only the air and space businesses but also non-aerospace, is critical to success. That’s been a key for us once we switched from the construction phase back in 2013 to becoming a viable, successful business entity. You can’t rely on one customer. You’ll never be successful that way no matter how successful that customer is. Obviously, it became more important when that one customer had a delay, but it’s just an essential way to run a commercial spaceport.
How is the spaceport doing financially?
We were very lucky that the state of New Mexico provided more than $200 million of bond money to build Spaceport America. Our goal always was to develop economic activity and jobs for the state, and also become self-supporting so we don’t have to go back to the legislature every year to ask for operating money.
We’re at the point this year of being 75 percent self-supporting, and next year it should go up to 90 percent. We’re almost there. That was part of my decision to leave. I’d gotten it this far, and we’re in a good place. I could stay another five years and I’d enjoy it immensely, but it’s probably time to turn it over to someone else to take it to the next level.
Has that progress helped in the spaceport’s relations with local and state officials?
It’s always difficult to get the message out. It’s one of the biggest frustrations I have sometimes, because we are doing so well. Yes, we’ve done 28 launches. Yes, we’re alive and well. Yes, we’re doing all these other things. It’s very difficult sometimes to get that word out to people who aren’t in the commercial space industry so that when you do go to the legislature, the legislators don’t say, “Well, what have you done lately?” I hope they are getting this message.
The number of commercial spaceports is growing, with proposals for even more. Do you talk with each other? Are there too many?
We do talk some. We’re all so busy and we’re all very different in our business models and so forth. Eventually there will be many spaceports. Right now there’s only 10. Is 10 too many? I don’t know. That’s why each one has to look at their business model and see what is their strength.
Each one has to find its niche, but hopefully they will have some diversification. Again, you can’t count on one customer and you can’t count on one industry, even. You have to have a really good business model based on where you are, who you are, what your business offerings are to the community. I think we’ve really now found ours, both on the aerospace side and on the non-aerospace, and it’s paying off. That’s my advice to any future spaceports as well.
Are you helping the state select your successor?
I hopefully will. I’ve done the job for five and a half years and I have a vested interest in passing the baton on to somebody that’s qualified to pick it up and run with it with the enthusiasm and passion that’s required.
We’ve got a great crew here, but we’re one deep in everything. The CEO, while you do CEO stuff, you’re also required to roll up your sleeves and do lots of other stuff, too.
What sort of skills should the next head of Spaceport America have?
I was fortunate. I was talking to one of my ex-bosses, who is a retired general, the other day and said that I didn’t realize what my 30 years in the Air Force taught me until I got this job. I reached back into all those different facets, whether it was operations, research and development, contracting, media relations or presentations. This particular job uses almost every one of those areas. I tried to capture those in the requirements description for this position.
Obviously, space credibility in the industry is also an important thing to bring to this job. But having a broad background really serves you well. I think I was lucky because I had that 30 years of experience and the opportunity in the Air Force to do all those different things. If someone brings at least some of those things to the job, that would be terrific.
What do you plan to do next?
Life’s an adventure, and there are other things out there I might like to do. I don’t have any immediate plans except to take a vacation without a cell phone or a computer.