If New Mexico Builds It, Will Space Travelers Come?
Monday, March 26, 2007
LAS CRUCES, N.M. -- Come April 3, the voters of this sun-baked area near the Mexican border will have an unusual question to answer: Are they happy enough as home to some hardy cotton and chile farmers, a branch of the state university and a growing population of retirees from up north? Or do they want quite literally to blast into a very different future?
In a referendum, the people of Las Cruces and surrounding Doña Ana County will be voting on a proposal to slightly raise their county sales tax, a highly unpopular idea these days. But in return, southern New Mexico, one of the poorest regions in the nation, would jump on a fast track to hosting the world's first all-commercial spaceport.
If the effort succeeds, a desert valley used by a handful of ranchers could become Spaceport America -- a 21st-century portal for thousands of people hoping to blast into space as tourists, explorers, researchers and, maybe someday, as commuters to destinations halfway around the world.
It's the stuff of "Star Trek" and Buck Rogers, and many skeptical New Mexicans simply roll their eyes. The parched environs are, after all, also home to Roswell, where UFO buffs maintain space aliens and their ship were captured and hidden away for years.
But spaceport advocates, from Gov. Bill Richardson (D) to most of Doña Ana County's commissioners, the local business community and many at New Mexico State University, are working hard to convince the members of the community that private space travel is an idea whose time has finally come -- to them.
The New Mexico plan is the first such project to be put to a public vote, but dozens of plans for orbital and suborbital private travel are making surprising progress. Many of them are the pet ideas of dot-com billionaires such as Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos and PayPal's Elon Musk, with very deep pockets.
A prototype inflatable space "hotel" (designed and discarded by NASA) was launched by motel billionaire Robert Bigelow last year and is orbiting the globe unmanned. The private rocket company SpaceX sent its newly developed Falcon 1 craft an impressive 200 miles into space last week before it malfunctioned. And Las Cruces is home to British entrepreneur Steve Bennett, who has invested considerable funds locally in the hope that he will someday send space tourists up from Spaceport America in his low-cost, well-tested Starchaser rocket.
Most important for Spaceport America, an enviable "anchor tenant" has committed to coming to the spaceport once it is built. Virgin Galactic, run by billionaire adventurer and business magnate Richard Branson, has signed a 20-year lease to use the facility, and Branson's plans ultimately call for launching as many as three flights a day for two-hour rides. The sprawling Virgin group of companies is sufficiently committed to both space tourism and to New Mexico that its top resort developer was in the area last week looking for a site where well-heeled customers might stay before and after flights.
"New Mexico has an opportunity to be on the ground floor when a major industry of the future is born," said the state's economic development director, Richard Homans. "Bill Gates first tried to start his software company in Albuquerque, but he couldn't find local backers. When it comes to space, that won't happen again."
As part of the state's commitment, the legislature approved $115 million to help develop the spaceport and expects to contribute another $25 million this session. The process of getting both environmental and Federal Aviation Administration approval is far along, and Homans says that if all goes well, construction of the 10,000-foot runway and futuristic terminal could begin next year.
But first there is that referendum to get past. The legislature didn't have funds for the entire $225 million bill and needed other contributors. Officials expect to receive $25 million from the federal government over five years, but the state turned to the three counties likely to benefit the most.
Doña Ana County is home to Las Cruces and, with 180,000 people, is by far the biggest. Sierra County is the smallest, but it is also home to the 27-square-mile spaceport site. And Otero County, where the first nuclear bomb was set off more than half a century ago, was also asked to pitch in because its town of Alamogordo could become a manufacturing hub.