The Astronaut is missing: An Albuquerque Sunport Whodoneit

Larry Barker

KRQE News 13 Investigation

ALBUQUERQUE, NM (KRQE) —  It was all hush, hush: A City of Albuquerque project nine months in the making. There were behind the scenes negotiations, months of back and forth emails, and high-level meetings. And once it was a done deal, they planned a big celebration complete with speeches, beer, wine, and platters of smoked salmon.

Surely, an event this momentous, you would have heard something about it. However, in this case, there were no announcements, no press releases, and no celebration. In fact, the project busted, and the only thing Albuquerque got out of the deal was a black eye. An attraction intended to highlight New Mexico history and accomplishment, today sits in Florida.

You can pinpoint the exact spot where this deal unraveled. Start at the Albuquerque Airport. From the parking garage, take the escalator, pass baggage claim to the ticket counter level, cross the hall, take another escalator to the departure gates concourse.

Near the top of the escalator on the third-floor level concourse is the epicenter of an unusual government snafu. It’s not something Albuquerque officials like to talk about, but it involves a Fortune 500 aerospace company, an astronaut, and a statue.

Harrison Jack Schmitt

Let’s go back to January 2018. A publicly traded aerospace company, Orbital ATK, offered to donate to Albuquerque, a specially commissioned statue of former astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt. Dr. Schmitt is a native New Mexican from Silver City. In 1972 he was a crew member on Apollo 17 and is the last living astronaut to have walked on the moon.

Schmitt is the only professional scientist to have visited the moon. In 1976 he was elected to the U.S. Senate from New Mexico and served one term. Today, Jack Schmitt lives in Albuquerque, where he works as a consultant on geology, space, and public policy issues.

Orbital ATK offered to donate the Schmitt statue to the Albuquerque Sunport in recognition of Dr. Schmitt’s contributions to space exploration and science. Phoenix artist Tom Bollinger was commissioned by Orbital to sculpt a bigger than life bronze statue of astronaut Schmitt standing on the moon’s surface next to an American flag.

Bollinger spent months sculpting and casting the bronze statue to be mounted on a granite pedestal and valued at $130,000. Because the artwork was a gift, Orbital executives pledged to pay for everything, including shipping from Phoenix and installation of the statue in Albuquerque.

[Photos of Harrison “Jack” Schmitt sculpture being created]

According to a formal donation agreement, Albuquerque’s only obligation was to prominently display the statue at the Sunport. In May last year, the Albuquerque Arts Board voted to accept the donation, and Mayor Keller’s Office signed off on the deal.

Aerospace giant Northrup Grumman acquired Orbital ATK, and company officials began discussions with Sunport staff about a prominent location to display the statue. They agreed to place it at the top of the escalator on the third-floor concourse.

October 3, 2018, was set for the dedication ceremony. Invitations were sent to 100 guests. Jack Schmitt would be there along with Mayor Keller and Northrup Grumman executives. Catered hors d’oeuvres were ordered up, including chilled shrimp with avocado salsa and rare top sirloin wrapped with tri-colored peppers.

Just weeks before the big event, invitees were informed that “due to unforeseen circumstances,” the dedication ceremony had been postponed. However, the statue celebration wasn’t rescheduled; it was quietly cancelled. Albuquerque officials never heard from Northrup Grumman again. And the Jack Schmitt statue disappeared.

Invitation for October 3, 2018 statue dedication ceremony.

Albuquerque’s Aviation Director, Nyika Allen, told KRQE News 13 she does not know where the Apollo 17 astronaut statue is today. She does admit, though, weeks before the dedication ceremony, there was a ‘glitch,’ and Northrup Grumman executives were not happy. The dispute related to the placement of the statue at the airport.

In a September 10, 2018 “urgent” letter to Aviation Director Allen, Northrup Grumman’s Vice President of Corporate Communications, Barron Beneski, wrote, “…we were very disappointed to learn … the city did not plan to honor our agreement for the location for the statue, directly at the top of the escalator on the third level concourse … but instead at a location to the side of the concourse adjacent to the entrance and exit of the restrooms.”

“The understanding was that the statue would be in a location of prominence at the airport,” Nyika Allen said. According to Northrup Grumman, the agreed-upon location was at the top of the third-floor escalator. “I knew that that was the requested location,” Allen says.

In fact, just weeks before the scheduled installation and dedication ceremony, Allen changed her mind about the statue’s placement. She told Northrup Grumman the size and weight of the statue near the middle of the hall on the third-floor concourse would create both traffic and structural concerns. “My biggest concern was passenger flow and passenger safety. From my perspective, the statue in that location would block the flow of traffic,” the Aviation Director told News 13.

Northrup Grumman’s Vice President Beneski wrote, “…we believed that we did have a clear verbal and actions-based agreement on where the statue would be located… Your concerns about security and traffic movement had not been communicated to us as late as the September 6 meeting and walk-through with your staff.”

As an alternative location, Allen proposed placing the statue against a wall adjacent to the 3rd-floor restrooms. Northrup Grumman was not pleased and “strongly” urged the city to reconsider the original placement at the top of the third-floor escalator. “Until we have confirmation that the city plans to honor the parties’ original agreement, we do not plan to move forward with the October 3, 2018 dedication ceremony and reception, and may be forced to reevaluate the donation altogether,” Northrup Grumman’s executive said.

[Photos of proposed sculpture location]

With the aerospace gift in jeopardy, Allen offered alternative locations for the donated statue. For example, she suggested placing the Apollo 17 statue along the rear wall in the TSA Checkpoint area.

Allen also recommended placing the $130,000 donated bronze statue in the entrance to the Sunport’s parking garage. You read that right — the parking garage. Allen claims the parking garage is a ‘prominent’ location at the airport. “Everyone that parks there does come through that area,” Allen said.

“I think it’s unfortunate that they didn’t like the next best alternative immediately next to their desired location,” Allen told News 13.

Predictably, Northrup Grumman wasn’t keen on the garage idea. So Allen had another suggestion. “I verbally offered the Convention Center as an alternative location for the statue,” Allen said. Northrup Grumman’s response? “I did not hear back on that,” Allen says.

The message was clear: Northrup Grumman didn’t consider the restrooms, the TSA Checkpoint, the parking garage, or the Convention Center to be ‘prominent’ locations for its valuable gift.

Northrup Grumman decided to take its Apollo 17 sculpture elsewhere. Today, the bronze statue of Apollo 17 astronaut Jack Schmitt sits on permanent display at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In its place on the third-floor concourse at the Albuquerque Sunport? Lounge chairs and Lowrider Motorcycles.

Northrup Grumman and Jack Schmitt declined to comment.

Statue of Harrison Jack Smith sits on permanent display at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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