By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 6, 2007
Voters in a New Mexico county have approved a tax increase that will help build the nation's first commercial spaceport, state officials said yesterday.
Rick Homans, chairman of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority and the state's secretary of economic development, said the referendum is sufficiently far ahead in the counting of provisional ballots to declare victory, although an official count has not yet been announced.
"This positive vote ignites the final design, engineering and construction of Spaceport America," Homans said. "New Mexico is prepared to launch a whole new era of discovery, exploration and commercial activity in space, on the moon and beyond. We have nothing but beautiful black sky ahead of us."
The $200 million spaceport is to be built in scrubland near the White Sands Missile Base and is expected to be open for business by early 2010.
British entrepreneur Richard Branson and his company Virgin Galactic have signed a long-term lease with the state to make New Mexico its international headquarters and the hub of a space-tourism business.
The referendum split the voters of Doña Ana County -- one of three southern New Mexico counties that will vote on the increased sales tax -- almost down the middle. Political, business and education leaders supported the tax and said it will bring a new industry to a poor area; groups of retirees and community activists representing farm workers called it too costly and risky.
The sales tax increase of 25 cents on a $100 purchase is expected to generate about $50 million for construction of the spaceport and about $1.6 million a year to support math and science programs in the county school system.
While the private space industry is still in its infancy, investors and some wealthy entrepreneurs are moving into the field. Some want to provide rides for space tourists, one investor is promoting a space hotel, and others are developing low-cost rockets that could resupply the international space station and later ferry travelers into space.
Several other states are discussing proposals to build spaceports, but those plans usually involved renovating existing military bases. The New Mexico spaceport is to be built entirely with commercial clients in mind.