'Like Watching Your Dog Chase Soap Bubbles'

At 'Spaceport America,' the problem is bigger than a bad boss

Michael Scott has nothing on Dan Hicks.

Both are possessed of a disturbing dearth of managerial ability, but the taxpayers of New Mexico can stream “The Office” and chuckle at the former. The latter is not a comedy character. He’s an actual person, who has been on the government payroll his entire adult life, most recently as director of Spaceport America. And according to an independent audit conducted in response to a whistleblower complaint, in that role, Hicks was “at times a forceful bully, and at other times obviously attempting charm in what was described ... as ineffectual, inept, and also embarrassing to observers.” In addition, he was “seemingly unable to hear or absorb negative news or reviews” and “would hold his beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”

Personality deficiencies notwithstanding, the crux of what one might characterize as New Mexico’s “Dan Hicks Problem” is a toxic combination of ignorance of and wishful thinking about a wildly expensive project pitched as “economic development” that never had the slightest chance of success. According to the audit:

Hicks spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on travel, consulting services that were essentially lobbying (using unregistered lobbyists) and advertising, trying to attract “orbital space flight” business to the Spaceport. However, the technology does not yet exist for an inland spaceport to launch orbital flights; Spaceport experts we interviewed stated that the technology for such orbital flight may exist 10-20 years in the future. To launch orbital flights now would involve dropping booster rockets over Colorado, Mexico, or other surrounding areas. Obviously, no one would permit that because of the risk to life and property, as was confirmed by the experts we interviewed. The experts explained that the reason that virtually all US orbital space flights are launched from Florida is that booster rockets can only be safely dropped over the ocean.

Wait — “orbital space flight”? Wasn’t Spaceport America built for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which intends to launch tourists on suborbital journeys?

Yes, but the spaceport’s “anchor tenant” is, to put it mildly, behind schedule. Virgin Galactic’s core technology was successfully tested in 2004, but more than a decade and a half later, Branson’s “vision” to be “the spaceline for Earth” remains far out of sight.

With each year that passed with no suborbital tourism, and no fulfillment of the promise of “thousands” of direct and associated jobs, state officials intensified their scrambling to find other sources of revenue to cover Spaceport America’s considerable construction and operating expenditures. Results were poor. After Virgin Galactic committed to New Mexico, a number of bottom-feeding space firms signed leases. Some of the companies went out of business. Others are hanging on, and even pay rent to this day. But as the chart below shows, since 2007, income for the “commercial” spaceport has been dwarfed by local, state, and federal subsidies — just under $15 million vs. more than $226 million.

By 2016, when spaceport chief Christine Anderson moved on and Hicks was picked as her replacement, pressure to turn what many had begun to see as a white elephant in the Jornada del Muerto into a success was severe. And Hicks, whether through genuine belief, a desire to keep his generous compensation package (before his firing in October, the salary alone was $159,120), or an amalgam of the two, was willing to try. But given the aforementioned liabilities, there was a big problem: His product stunk.

Undaunted, Hicks pressed on, spending “hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars lobbying to attract customers for orbital space flight launches, and also Department of Defense military launch business,” even though the Pentagon “has White Sands Missile Range ... and would naturally utilize that facility for all [its] inland space flight needs.”

As the failures stacked up, “the Spaceport became increasingly dysfunctional.” Predictably, factions developed, with one supporting their boss’s “vision of an orbital and military Spaceport” and another seeking “to see the Spaceport follow its original vision as a commercial spaceflight facility.” The man in charge was becoming a joke:

Certain upper managers told us they were literally “locked out of meetings,” while Mr. Hicks made decisions with others in secret, then held useless “town hall” meetings so everyone could share their thoughts about a decision which had already been made. During out interviews, one manager said “being in a meeting with Dan [Hicks] is like watching your dog chase soap bubbles.” Other staff members related similar descriptions of Mr. Hick’s [sic] ineffectual management style; several felt sorry for him, because he was such an unskilled and incompetent manager.

But inadequate people skills were just one part of the problem. Arrogance, conflicts of interest, greed, and blatant dishonesty added to the debacle. Auditors documented more than $60,000 Hicks spent “on travel reimbursed to him, and paid for by the taxpayers,” in his futile quest to find tenants for Spaceport America. But the sum does not “include the cost of travel paid through purchase orders ... directly to the State’s travel agency ... which covered much of the airfare, nor any travel costs paid via a State purchasing card. Thus, the actual total cost of Mr. Hicks’ travel is likely thousands of dollars higher.” (Worse still: “Some of the events attended by Mr. Hicks were essentially tourist events, and do not appear to have served any legitimate business purpose for the Spaceport.”)

Lying about being a member of the National Space Council, creating and submitting “false public vouchers,” attempting to secure an unapproved raise, fibbing that the spaceport has a strategic plan, hiring “friends and former colleagues” for staff positions and contractor work, inappropriately accessing his employees’ emails, regularly committing procurement violations, violating the anti-donation clause of the New Mexico’s constitution — Hicks was very naughty during his more than four years on the job, and he now faces potential criminal charges. So it’s worth asking why those tasked with Spaceport America’s oversight never took any interest and/or action. Even in the notoriously corrupt and cronyist Land of Enchantment, Hicks exhibited egregious behavior. Where was the New Mexico Spaceport Authority? Where was the legislature? Where was the governor?

In at least one case, asking that Hicks get a pay hike. As the email below reveals, Rick Holdridge, then the chairman of the board of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, called him “an incredible asset for our state,” and lamented that he was “paid about ½ the average” of “other major spaceport directors around the country.”

Dan Hicks is gone, never to return, but anyone who believes that the spaceport’s woes will end with the jettisoning of a callow, crooked manager is coddling a corporate-welfare boondoggle long overdue for a mercy killing. A single change in personnel, no matter how significant, cannot fix fundamental flaws. The company Spaceport America was built to serve is not viable, and other launch providers have little use for the facility. No experienced, competent, and “visionary” executive can change that unfortunate reality.

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