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THURS: Virgin Galactic completes successful final test flight ahead of sending paying customers to space, +More

This photo released by Virgin Galactic shows mission specialist Christopher Huie, left, instructor Luke Mays, center, and mission specialist Jamila Gilbert during a test flight on May 25, 2023.
Virgin Galactic
This photo released by Virgin Galactic shows mission specialist Christopher Huie, left, instructor Luke Mays, center, and mission specialist Jamila Gilbert during a test flight on May 25, 2023.

Virgin Galactic completes final test flight before launching paying customers to space - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Virgin Galactic completed what is expected to be its final test flight Thursday before taking paying customers on brief trips to space, marking what the space tourism company described as a "fantastic achievement" in what has been a long road to commercial operations.

Six of the company's employees, including two pilots, landed at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico after the short up-and-down flight that included a few minutes of weightlessness. It took about an hour for the mother ship to carry the spaceplane to an altitude of 44,500 feet, where it was released and fired its rocket motor to make the final push.

"Successful boost, WE HAVE REACHED SPACE!" Virgin Galactic tweeted.

It reached an altitude of 54.2 miles before gliding back down to the runway, according to the company.

Jamila Gilbert, who grew up in southern New Mexico and leads the company's internal communications, was among those on board who were evaluating what it will be like for paying customers.

It was hard for her to put the experience into words, saying it probably will take a lifetime to process the sights and the feelings that filled those moments between the rocket igniting and the spaceship reaching its highest point.

"It was just this magnetic pull," she said in an interview. "Once I started looking out, I could feel that I was floating. I could hear voices. But I couldn't stop looking at the planet, and I couldn't look away."

Fellow crew member Christopher Huie said it seems as if everything stopped when the spaceship was released from the carrier plane.

"You're just waiting for the rocket to light," said Huie, an aerospace engineer. "And I think that moment had so much anticipation, and I could have lived in that moment forever."

Then came a little jostle with the firing of the rocket, and the crew were pinned to their seats as the G-forces kicked in.

The flight came nearly two years after founder Richard Branson beat fellow billionaire and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and rocket company Blue Origin into space. Bezos ended up flying nine days later from West Texas, and Blue Origin has since launched several passenger trips. Federal aviation authorities banned Virgin Galactic launches after Branson's flight to investigate a mishap.

Virgin Galactic has been working for more than a decade to send paying passengers on short space hops and in 2021 finally won the federal government's approval.

The next step will be for Virgin Galactic to analyze data from Thursday's flight and inspect the planes and other equipment as the company prepares for commercial service, possibly as soon as late June.

Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier has acknowledged the delays and missed deadlines over the years. But on Thursday, he said seeing the crew's reactions after landing gave him confidence in what the company has built so far.

The initial commercial flight will include members of the Italian Air Force who will conduct experiments. Next will come customers who purchased tickets years ago for their chance at weightlessness aboard a winged spacecraft that launches from the belly of an airplane.

About 800 tickets have been sold over the past decade, with the initial batch going for $200,000 each. Tickets now cost $450,000 per person.

Virgin Galactic has reached space five times since 2018 and will be aiming for 400 flights per year from Spaceport America once it finishes building its next class of rocket-powered planes at a facility in neighboring Arizona.

After Branson's trip, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded flights as it investigated a problem that caused the rocket ship to veer off course during its descent back to its runway in the New Mexico desert. Virgin Galactic insisted at the time that Branson and others were never in any danger.

The company made changes to its carrier airplane and the spaceplane. The delay was nearly twice as long as expected, partly because of supply chain issues and labor shortages.

Branson joined a group of customers who watched Thursday's flight from Spaceport America.

Huie, a senior manager with Virgin Galactic's flight sciences engineering team, said the company is ready for commercial service and will be expanding its fleet over the coming years.

"We're looking to scale up in a big way," he said, "and the goal is to populate lots of spaceports with lots of spaceships and motherships and send hundreds of people every year to space."

Opponents to Edgewood anti-abortion ordinance gather enough signatures for a public vote – Santa Fe New Mexican

An anti-abortion ordinance in Edgewood will now go to a public vote after a successful petition drive by residents opposed to the measure.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports organizers gathered over 400 signatures and submitted the petition to the County Clerk on Wednesday. Edgewood commissioners passed the ordinance on April 26 after hours of debate.

Under state statute, if petitioners get at least 20% of the average number of registered voters who cast ballots in the most recent municipal election within 90 days of an ordinance passing, they can then petition for a special election.

Edgewood is following the cities of Clovis, Hobbs and Eunice, as well as Roosevelt and Lea Counties, in passing ordinances that cite federal law to restrict access to abortion, although the procedure remains legal in New Mexico.

However, Edgewood is the first place to pass such an ordinance since the governor signed House Bill 7 into law, which explicitly prohibits public bodies from interfering with access to reproductive healthcare.

Officials urge caution as people head for the water over the holiday weekendAlbuquerque Journal

As we head into the Memorial Day weekend, officials around the state are anticipating large crowds at lakes brimming with water, and they are warning people to be cautious.

The Albuquerque Journal reports water levels are very high because of unusually large snowfall levels this year.

That is translating to submerged picnic tables at Cochiti Lake and levels at Abiquiu Lake of 226 feet, up from 195 feet a year ago.

State Parks officials anticipate large crowds of people taking to the water over the long weekend and warn that high lake levels can hide debris or other things just under the surface. Wearing a life jacket is crucial.

Yesterday the Albuquerque Police Department and Albuquerque Fire Rescue rescued two kayakers from the swollen Rio Grande. One was stuck by a fallen tree, and with the rapid river flow it made the rescue more challenging for responders.

During the next six months, the LFC will meet in different places across the state, according to a draft calendar. All meetings are available to watch remotely via a webcast.

NM fiscal experts outline plans to track record spending by state agencies- By Danielle Prokop, Source New Mexico

The “once-in-history” money approved by the 2023 New Mexico Legislature is ready to spend, and the Legislative Finance Committee is tracking the agencies and projects while building priorities for the next year before lawmakers return in January.

Oil and gas revenues boosted the budget by more than $3.6 billion – even as New Mexico is paying more in state funding for historic wildfire and flooding damages from climate change. This means more money for education, and the state agencies that oversee everything from agriculture to workforce development.

As part of a post-session review, the Legislative Finance Committee staff – which are full-time fiscal analysts who provide recommendations and oversight – presented a 60-page workplan to an interim committee panel filled with lawmakers from both the House and Senate finance committees.

The presentation lays out the timeline for reports overseeing hundreds of millions the state is spending in programs in education, healthcare, prisons, natural resources and more.

The point of the document is to get feedback from lawmakers for both the watchdog reports, but also outline budget priorities for the 2024 session, said Charles Sallee, the deputy director of the agency.

“I want to emphasize these are draft staff proposals, we welcome feedback from members not only at this hearing, but afterwards,” he said.

Sallee gave previews of what the LFC was planning to examine over the interim session, and what presentations lawmakers can expect over the next six months.

Education funding

First up, in higher education, Sallee said because of the state’s Opportunity Scholarship, which pays tuition for degree-seeking New Mexico residents, the legislature has two responsibilities.

“The state is not only paying for instruction and general funds – the basic operations of our universities,” he said. “But we’re also like the parent paying the tuition cost for everybody as well.”

Tied into education is workforce development, including looking at the value of dual credits – or gaining college credit in high school.

“Building out the workforce is a theme from agency to agency,” Sallee said. “Either needing to hire people internally, or people in the fields that they’re deploying resources to.”

In K-12, Sallee said examining how funding impacts engagement, attendance and behavior issues are a top priority. He said there’s almost $232 million in non-recurring funding for education programs, and the LFC has to determine which ones need to continue, find a stream of funding, or end.

Noted in the work plan is an evaluation of how spending in public schools since the Martinez-Yazzie v. State of New Mexico decision has impacted the “deficiencies highlighted in court findings.”

That comment refers to the 2018 decision, where a district court judge found the state violated its constitutional mandate to provide adequate education to low-income, Hispanic, Native American and disabled students.

Finally, the committee will take a hard look at child care assistance, the state’s largest early childhood program.

Health care

Priorities in the interim include looking for more insight into Medicaid spending, and behavioral health programs.

New federal laws will require a single, unified department in the state’s Human Services department to be responsible for regulation, policy and purchasing health care.

The LFC plans to present how to consolidate three divisions across three agencies to form the new department in December.

Since the New Mexico Department of Health has eliminated the waiting list for people with developmental disabilities for services, Sallee said there needs to be regulatory oversight to go with the expansion.

He pointed to data showing the state run health facilities have fewer individuals receiving services, resulting in a potential fiscal crisis. The report showed this issue as ongoing.

“This is where we’re running into financial problems,” Sallee said. “You heard in the financial report that they’re about half empty and not bringing in revenue and are possibly going to be short at the end of the fiscal year.”

Prisons and courts funding

The LFC will look at parole revocations, which account for one-third of new admissions into New Mexico prisons – the vast majority of those are for substance use.

“Prisons don’t provide great substance treatment,” Sallee said. “If that’s the reason people are being sent back to prison, what are other alternatives that can be a lower cost and get better outcomes to communities?”

Natural resources 

The LFC will be watching the rollout for plugging orphan oil and gas wells.

New Mexico received more than $44 million in federal funding and pledged $290 million in state money to clean them up. Despite that, the LFC said the program “lagged” this year. The report said the state Energy Minerals and Natural Resources Department needs to commit resources to the project.

Also on the radar is $75 million one-time funding for the State Engineer’s office over the Texas v. New Mexico lawsuit, and the Lower Rio Grande located below Elephant Butte. The LFC prioritized “long-term solutions,” to address interstate compact issues.

Sallee added the LFC will be monitoring the impact of $100 million dollars set aside for fire response in northern New Mexico communities impacted by the Hermit’s Peak-Calf Canyon wildfires.

Those emergency funds from the state had no applicants Source NM reported in April.

New Mexico convenes law enforcement commission to disrupt organized crime — Associated Press

New Mexico's governor announced a new effort to confront organized crime Wednesday by convening a specialized commission of local prosecutors and leading law enforcement officials.

Organized crime in New Mexico has recently spurred the adoption of criminal penalties for coordinated retail theft, federal raids on stash houses to rescue migrants and efforts to disrupt fentanyl rings.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is reviving the state's Organized Crime Commission under provisions of a 1970s-era statute. A commission hasn't been convened since the administration of former Gov. Bill Richardson, who served from 2003 until 2011.

Albuquerque-based District Attorney Sam Bregman will lead the eight-member group that will provide an annual report to the state Legislature and governor.

"New Mexico, like the rest of the country, has a crime problem, whether it's guns, drugs or human trafficking," Bregman said. "Much of it gets its origin, means and methods from criminal organizations. ... The purpose of this commission is to forestall, check and prevent the infiltration and encroachment of organized crime."

Commission members include Republican former state Supreme Court Justice Judith Nakamura, U.S. Marshal Sonya Chavez, state Public Safety Secretary Jason Bowie and Democratic Bernalillo County Sheriff John Allen.

At a news conference, Lujan Grisham said the commission's work should help inform future legislative proposals, though some activities involving criminal investigations won't be disclosed to the public.