SIERRA COUNTY – Bill Gutman’s retirement from Spaceport America at the end of September came during a quiet time at the southern New Mexico facility.
Virgin Galactic is undergoing a period of maintenance to its fleet elsewhere, and the spaceport’s other full-time tenants were working quietly. SpinLaunch, a company testing a centrifugal launch system that hurls satellites toward space, had completed its 10th suborbital launch days earlier. Construction was underway at the spaceport’s operations center to mitigate irregular settling related to the domed building’s original construction. The spaceport’s emergency department was cleaning one of its firefighting vehicles.
And Gutman, the spaceport’s aerospace director since 2009, was clearing his desk and turning in his radio.
“I’m 72 years old and I’ve got a lot of things I want to do,” he said. “There’s never a good time to retire but I thought this looks good because we are in a brief hiatus. It seemed like this was the time that would cause the least disruption.”
While his title has changed over 13 years, his portfolio has remained consistent. Dividing his time between the spaceport and its business offices in Las Cruces, Gutman has been responsible for flight safety and maintaining the facility’s launch site operator license with the Federal Aviation Administration. He also works with the spaceport’s tenants and customers and plays a role in development of the spaceport infrastructure and facilities. He has also been a frequent visitor to classrooms and public events to talk about the spaceport and aerospace more widely.
His involvement with the spaceport and the state’s investment in aerospace goes back more than two decades.
Gutman has lived in New Mexico since 1978, after he completed a doctorate in optical and molecular physics from Ohio State University. He worked for technology companies at White Sands Missile Range for 12 years before moving to New Mexico State University’s Physical Science Laboratory, involved with high-power laser and optical technologies.
By the mid-1990s, when New Mexico’s Economic Development Department was studying the potential of a commercial spaceport, Gutman was working with aviation and spaceflight systems and the department sought his input. After he retired from PSL in 2007, he deepened his involvement, authoring the facility’s FAA license application and ultimately signing on as an employee of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, the public agency overseeing Spaceport America.
“This was basically a patch of desert,” he recalled as he described his involvement from the initial surveys of the state land where Gov. Bill Richardson and Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, would announce plans in 2006 to build a spaceport from which regular commercial passengers would take suborbital flights from southern New Mexico.
By then, he said, his early vision of what the spaceport might be had already changed drastically, even before construction began, with the entrepreneurial sector taking more of the lead, building on technologies and research developed by federal agencies.
“There was this feeling of optimism at the time, that there were going to be many companies within the space tourism business,” he recalled.
Private sector leadership in the race for space became clear in 2006 when Las Cruces hosted the X Prize Cup rocketry and lunar landing expo and competition as construction, initially costing $220 million in taxpayer dollars, got underway. After 16 years, Virgin Galactic has yet to begin regular commercial service, although it has flown crewed test flights over the spaceport.
“Everybody likes to say space is hard, and that gets driven home every day,” Gutman said. Establishing frequent, routine passenger service on reusable rocket-powered craft would be the beachhead for lowering the venture’s costs, he argued. Currently, the price to fly with Virgin Galactic or its competitors Blue Origin and SpaceX are prohibitive for most people — $450,000 for Virgin.
Gutman said he wanted the price to come down low enough for more human beings to visit space, an experience he has not had himself.
“The people who have been there always say it’s a life-changing experience,” he said. “You get to experience the Earth, how small it looks and how fragile, how thin the atmosphere is, all of those things.”
The views he was looking forward to enjoying himself soon were of the Sacramento Mountains east of Alamogordo and the faces of siblings out of state whom he has not seen in five years.
Looking ahead for the spaceport, Gutman said he believed Virgin Galactic will ultimately establish a viable space tourism enterprise and that the spaceport would be a home for research and development by other companies as well.
“I think the taxpayers will look back and say that was a pretty good investment,” he said.
Spaceport America director Scott McLaughlin said Gutman had seen the spaceport through its inception to nearly all of Virgin Galactic’s test flight phase, including its first fully crewed flight with Branson on board, maintaining safety at the facility when the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily ceased much activity at the campus; and paved the way for his successor to start working smoothly the Monday following Gutman’s retirement.
“In some ways, there won’t be any big changes because (Gutman) oversaw a lot of the growth, this recent maturity that we had to go through to be able to support VG and some of our newer customers,” McLaughlin said, paying tribute to Gutman’s steady presence in the background through years when Spaceport America drew political controversy over transparency, management and its financial viability.
“He made sure he stayed long enough to see us through.”
Algernon D’Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, [email protected] or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.
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