By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
So far, only Doña Ana has set a date for a referendum -- which would add 25 cents to a $100 purchase and is expected to bring in $6.5 million a year. The two other counties are waiting to see what happens April 3. The proposal has its share of opponents.
"I'm not opposed to the spaceport, but I think it's a terrible idea to tax poor people to pay for something that will be used by the rich," said Oscar Vásquez Butler, a county commissioner who represents many of the unincorporated rural colonias where the poorest New Mexicans live, often without proper roads and water and sewage systems. "They tell us the spaceport will bring jobs to our people, but it all sounds very risky. The only thing we know for sure is that people will pay more taxes."
William McCamley, a 28-year-old county commissioner and leader of People for Aerospace, a group in support of the referendum, calls the tax -- one-quarter of which would go toward improving math and science classes in local schools -- a small investment for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. McCamley returned to Las Cruces after getting a degree in public administration at Harvard University and said it was impossible to find a good job here. He sees space businesses as a way to bring high-paying work into the area and to keep the young residents of Las Cruces from leaving after college, as many do.
"The opponents say they want the spaceport, but they don't want the tax," McCamley said. "We're saying that's impossible, and that the huge benefits that would come to the county make it worth the money and the risk."
New Mexico is not the only state working on a spaceport. Texas, California, Florida and Virginia also have projects, mostly on military bases; only Spaceport America is being designed from the ground up for commercial space ventures.
Beyond that, New Mexico has a number of tempting advantages: It is seldom without dry, clear weather, perfect for launches; it offers large areas with few people who could be in harm's way in case of a misfire; and the site is one mile above sea level, reducing the difficulty and cost of getting into space. When wealthy space enthusiasts (including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen) were looking for a site to hold the annual X Prize competition for space technology several years ago, Las Cruces got the nod.
What's more, New Mexico is working hard to welcome space companies -- continuing a hard-selling tradition epitomized in 1950 by the city then known as Hot Springs but now called Truth or Consequences. A TV game show by that name offered to broadcast from any city that renamed itself for the show, and Hot Springs overwhelmingly passed a referendum for the change. There's a monument in the town -- which would be one of the gateways to the spaceport -- to show host Ralph Edwards.
"We very much like the idea that people in New Mexico are so eager to have us," said Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic. "They sought us out after we announced we were going into the space business and made the sale."
While the 1950 name change did bring some brief notoriety, "T or C," as it is called, remains a small, out-of-the-way place. Could a spaceport be a similar flash in the pan?
There are many skeptics who dismiss the notion that private space travel will become a major industry, and the technical and financial obstacles are daunting. (How do you become a space industry millionaire? the joke goes. Well, you start as a billionaire and lose a lot of money.) But serious businessmen, including Branson, Bezos, Musk, and Budget Suites founder Bigelow of space hotel fame, have all put many of their own millions of dollars into their projects.
High-end space tourism has gotten much of the attention -- Vienna-based Space Adventures is about to place its fifth well-heeled customer on a Russian Soyuz going to the international space station -- but these savvy entrepreneurs have long-term plans for much more.
Musk's SpaceX company is vying to send rockets to resupply the international space station after the space shuttle program ends in 2010, Bigelow thinks his orbiting hotel could attract companies that want to do research in weightless conditions as well as space visitors, and Virgin Galactic wants to launch satellites from the same "mother ship" that will take tourists into space. Bennett has begun building a 120-acre Rocket City outside Las Cruces, where he will assemble rockets, exhibit his Starchaser rockets -- which have already flown -- and sell merchandise that has flown in space.
Big dreamers, they all also hope someday to send explorers to the moon, Mars and beyond. Back on Earth, an international system of rocket travel and international spaceports could make the flight from New York to Beijing a very easy -- and lucrative -- two-hour affair. "Rocketry will revolutionize transportation like the Internet revolutionized information," Musk said recently.
NASA has begun to support some smaller private space businesses such as SpaceX with contracts, but much of the recent burst in activity has come without government help. Indeed, many of the new space entrepreneurs are scathing in their critiques of NASA -- saying that since the end of the Apollo program, the agency has made manned space travel much more costly, less safe and less exciting. The private activity, they say, is to some extent a function of the vacuum NASA has created.
The Doña Ana referendum would help by giving the industry a potentially custom-made home, but it isn't a make-or-break issue for the firms because of the spaceport plans in other states. Those options may be necessary because the vote is shaping up as unpredictable. The county's business and education communities are for it, but groups such as newly arrived retirees in Las Cruces and poor Mexican Americans in the colonias are said to be less enthusiastic and are often opposed.
There is also controversy over the site's proximity to the famed Camino Real trail, the historic migration and trade route for people journeying from Mexico to Santa Fe. The trail, which is largely untended and unused but still packs an emotional charge, passes about two miles from the spaceport site.
With the state eager to build the spaceport after expending so much political capital and raising so much money, economic development director Homans was asked what happens if voters say no.
His uncomfortable reply: "We have no Plan B."