Spaceport America’s new boss

Long before Spaceport America took shape in the desert of southern New Mexico, Daniel Hicks was thinking about a spaceport there.

daniel-hicks

Daniel Hicks. Credit: Spaceport America

“About 16 years ago, I started the Business Development Directorate, and at that time we were working with kind of the predecessor to the spaceport,” he said, recalling his career at the U.S. Army White Sands Missile Range. That was a concept then known as the Southwest Regional Spaceport, one of a number of sites proposed in the 1990s to host Lockheed Martin’s VentureStar reusable launch vehicle.

VentureStar never got off the ground, but the spaceport, renamed and repurposed for suborbital launches, eventually got built. Hicks continued to play a supporting role in its development, helping identify the best locations for it and, later, serving as an ex officio member of the board of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority to coordinate its activities with those at White Sands. “I kind of tracked it all along,” he said.

Now, Hicks is running the spaceport. In September, the board on which he once sat named him as the new chief executive of Spaceport America, succeeding Christine Anderson, who retired in August.

Hicks, in a Nov. 18 interview at the end of his first week on the job, described taking over the spaceport as something of a dream come true after spending more than 30 years working at White Sands. “A couple years ago, I was at that point where I became eligible to retire, and my wife asked, ‘What do you want to do?’” he recalled. “I was always interested in space. I wanted to be an astronaut years ago, when I was a young engineer.”

He seized the opportunity when Anderson retired, taking advantage of his extensive experience working with the spaceport while at White Sands, where he served in positions from test engineer up to deputy executive director. “It put me in a good position to come over here and become the CEO,” he said.

He inherits a spaceport that is largely complete and looking for new business. “What I’m excited about is that now we’re moving into more of a continued operations phase,” he said, praising Anderson and others for their efforts over the last several years to complete the spaceport’s facilities and seek out additional business.

Hicks said he planned to continue that strategy of diversifying the spaceport’s customer base. “I think in any kind of spaceport, particularly one devoted to commercial space at this time, it’s important to be diversified,” he said. “It’s important to not put all your eggs in one basket.”

While Anderson worked to bring in non-aerospace business into the spaceport, from tourism to film shoots, Hicks said he’s particularly interested in the suborbital and small launch markets. He declined to name specific companies he is talking with, citing non-disclosure agreements. However, the small launch market would be particularly challenging for an inland launch site like Spaceport America.

“One of the things that makes sense to me is to look at our business plan, and then look strategically how we want to focus the spaceport activities, our staff, and our infrastructure to get ahead of the game,” he said. That effort, he said, may last up to a year to understand the emerging suborbital and small launch industries “and what makes sense for this part of the country to be able to support those industries.”

The spaceport, though, can’t ignore its anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic. The beginning of operations of the company’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle from the spaceport is years behind schedule, thanks to delays in its development exacerbated by a fatal test-flight accident in October 2014. The company was scheduled to begin glide flights of its new SpaceShipTwo in early November, but those have been delayed by an unspecified technical problem encountered during a Nov. 3 test flight.

Hicks said that, on the first day on the job as Spaceport America chief executive, he contacted Virgin Galactic president Mike Moses and chief executive George Whitesides. “I just wanted to let them know how excited I am to be here and to understand where they’re at in their operations,” he said. He added he was planning a follow-up visit in the coming weeks to Virgin Galactic’s headquarters in Mojave, California.

He also said he’s moving ahead with a series of “signature events” at the spaceport announced in August. He arrived just after the first such event, the Spaceport America Drone Summit that included workshops and competitions for drone developers. Future events include a relay race, where teams of runners will go from El Paso, Texas, to the spaceport, as well as the Spaceport America Cup, a student rocketry competition scheduled for next June.

Hicks said he expects more than 70 universities to participate in the rocketry competition. “The thing I really like about the Spaceport America Cup is getting the excitement in our colleges and universities. They’re the future of our space exploration program,” he said.

Those signature events help in Spaceport America’s public outreach efforts, and also show local and state lawmakers that the spaceport has value even while waiting for Virgin Galactic to begin operations. Hicks said he expects to leverage relationships with legislators he created while at White Sands to secure continued support for the spaceport, including additional state funding to cover operations costs.

“They’re expecting us to be self-sufficient and self-supporting,” he said of state legislators. He noted that Spaceport America plans to cover 71 percent of its operations costs through user fees and other payments in 2017, growing to 92 percent in 2018. “By 2019, we’ll be totally self-sufficient and won’t need to go to the state legislature for any of their general funds. We’ll be a spaceport authority able to operate fairly independently.”

There are also, he suggested, opportunities for Spaceport America to collaborate with his former employer. In his last couple of years at White Sands, he said he was involved in long-term studies about future technologies it could be involved with, including some space-related efforts.

“As we look to where they’re going in the future,” he said of White Sands, “I know there’s more potential to help them offload some of their work.” That could, he said, include supporting some of the testing NASA does at its own facility at White Sands.

But a week into the job, Hicks admitted he was still getting up to speed on all the spaceport’s issues. “Right now I feel like I’m drinking from a fire hose,” he said. “I’ve got a lot more to learn about the spaceport.”