Voting to Bolster Political Egos

Residents of one New Mexico county voted to impose a tax on themselves to fund a commercial spaceport. (Two other counties will vote soon.) The usual bromides about economic development seem abundant, but I like this one:

Rick Homans, chairman of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority and the state’s secretary of economic development, said the referendum is sufficiently far ahead in the counting of provisional ballots to declare victory, although an official count has not yet been announced.

“This positive vote ignites the final design, engineering and construction of Spaceport America,” Homans said. “New Mexico is prepared to launch a whole new era of discovery, exploration and commercial activity in space, on the moon and beyond. We have nothing but beautiful black sky ahead of us.”

Any guesses who will be taking credit for such visionary brilliance? Does it matter that a commercial spaceport is not even distantly related to a legitimate government task? I don’t for a second believe that the commercial spaceport will be used for discovery and exploration beyond what space tourists seek. But still. Discovery! Exploration! Besides, there’s (allegedly) a market, so build it!

The $200 million spaceport is to be built in scrubland near the White Sands Missile Base and is expected to be open for business by early 2010.

British entrepreneur Richard Branson and his company Virgin Galactic have signed a long-term lease with the state to make New Mexico its international headquarters and the hub of a space-tourism business.

Those lease terms are favorable to Virgin Galactic, costing it $27.5 million total over the 20 years of the lease. Clearly that doesn’t recoup the $200 million “investment” approved by a majority of voters. I can’t help thinking that the same standard that applies to every other “private” business should apply here, vote or no vote. If it’s a viable commercial business, the business itself will fund the spaceport. If it can’t fund the spaceport, it’s not a viable business. That should be the end of the analysis from the state’s viewpoint.