Is New Mexico Chasing Another Space Ghost?

Starry-eyed 'economic development'

Mayor Tim Keller called it “a frankly unbelievable bright spot in the midst of a pandemic” — a “project that will literally make Albuquerque a home base for space.”

Maybe. Maybe not.

It’s been a week since the Duke City’s Environmental Planning Commission “approved a new site plan for an approximately 122-acre parcel situated between the base and Albuquerque International Sunport, helping pave the way for Washington, D.C.-based Group Orion to develop the land.” The “campus,” gushed the Albuquerque Journal, “which would be known as the Orion Center, could house 1,000 jobs once it opens and eventually expand to include 2,500 jobs.”

Orion is a subsidiary of Theia Group, Inc., which along with its “aerospace partners,” claims to be “building the world’s first satellite constellation designed specifically to digitize the entire earth continuously.”

As the Satellite Industry Association explains:

Remote sensing satellites, some as large as a truck or others as small as a shoebox, circle the Earth and use instruments to detect both visible light for photographs of the Earth’s surface as well as other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum used for ultraviolet, infrared … and microwave imagery, mapping radio emissions on Earth, creating profiles of the atmosphere, and more. Once a remote sensing satellite records the imagery or sensing information, the data collected is sent to a ground station on the Earth and most often to another location, where the data is processed for interpretation and study.

High-tech stuff, and certainly more than welcome in a state where government dependency and an overreliance on the oil-and-gas sector put economic growth and fiscal stability continuously at risk. Even better, the Orion Center would reverse a disturbing trend. As the chart below indicates, aerospace products and parts manufacturing is a dying industry in New Mexico, shedding more than 70 percent of its jobs between 2007 and 2019.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

But given the dearth of details about the company, it’s not unreasonable to ask if Theia is for real. In a May 2019 article, Breaking Defense’s Theresa Hitchens noted: “Little public information is available about Theia, which was founded in 2015 with an angel investment of $500,000.” In November 2016, it filed a pro forma Notice of an Offering of Securities Made Without Registration with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, but as 2020 draws to a close, Theia remains privately held, and thus its financials are not required to be publicly disclosed.

Visit the firm’s slick but slim website, and you’ll learn nothing about its executives or investors. “Additional information is available to qualified interested parties” via its “contact page,” which is nothing more than an email address: info@theiagroupinc.com. (Deep pockets or not, Theia applied for, and was granted, a federal “loan” under the Paycheck Protection Program.)

Asking Keller’s administration for any documents verifying Theia’s financial viability would be futile. As they did when asked about the attempt to lure the headquarters of U.S. Space Command to Albuquerque, the city’s public-records bureaucrats would surely refuse, citing exemptions under state statutes for “trade secrets.”

Then there’s the lawsuit to consider. Thea Technologies, based in Oregon, “offers optical engineering design services along with high-end lens manufacturing.” It is none too happy with another entity using its name, and is suing in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, “alleging trademark infringement and unfair competition under the Lanham Act against Theia Group, Inc. and Theia Holdings A, Inc. for their alleged infringement of the THEIA mark.”

Finally, the remote-sensing industry is highly competitive. ImageSat International, Capella Space, Maxar Technologies, Airbus, Earth-i, Satellogic, Spire Global, Planet, e-GEOS — from long-established players to start-ups, purely private efforts to government-backed projects, Earth orbit is getting awfully crowded with satellites launched to make money scanning mankind’s home. (In a related issue, the Federal Communications Commission’s authorization of Theia to “construct, launch, and operate a satellite constellation” is dependent “on compliance with any new rules the Commission adopts in the orbital debris rulemaking … launched in November 2018.”)

Given New Mexico’s abysmal failure to foster, attract, and retain high-paying, high-tech businesses -- e.g., Eclipse Aviation, Schott Solar, Titan Aerospace, Advent Solar, Solar Array Ventures -- Theia’s planned investment warrants skepticism.

The Land of Enchantment already has one space boondoggle. Can it afford another?