February 21, 2010

A New Exit to Space Readies for Business

THE FINAL FRONTIER A lunar landing pad used in model competitions near the New Mexico construction site for Spaceport America.

New York Times

UPHAM, N.M. -- Take Highway 51 east out of Truth or Consequences, a small city that years ago assumed the name of a game show on a dare. Drive through miles and miles of desert, then turn right at an old train depot whose bustle has long since pulled out. Keep going.

After eight miles, turn left on a dirt road that leads deeper into the sage and yucca vastness of New Mexico, past a ranch that used to be a stage stop on an ancient trade route called El Camino Real. Soon after, you will come to your destination: the future.

Here, where rattlesnakes hibernate and rabbits scurry, there unfolds a two-mile runway designed to accommodate spaceships. And right beside it, past those giant rumbling tractors of sci-fi design, the groundwork is being laid for a hangar large enough to store spaceships between launchings.

This is not a secret government project, or some NASA reception hall for alien dignitaries. This is Spaceport America, a $198 million endeavor by the State of New Mexico to plumb the commercial potential of the suborbital heavens — a place once known only to astronauts, dreamers and the occasional chimp.

Space tourism. Scientific research. Satellite deliveries. All possible up there, where the stars glitter like spilled coins. Who knows? One day you might decide to skip another two-week vacation in the Wisconsin Dells for a two-hour trip into space. Fly Virgin Galactic. See the sights from as high as 80 miles up. Five minutes of weightlessness guaranteed. Just $200,000.

President Obama’s call last month for fundamental changes in the mission of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration seemed to open the door, or roof, ever wider to private industry. Some people here interpreted his words to mean that your seat back and tray table should be in their full upright positions, because commercial space travel is about to blast off.

And this flat, deserted, mostly rain-free stretch of New Mexico is the perfect location, says Will Whitehorn, the president of Virgin Galactic, the spaceport’s anchor tenant. “It is about the closest you get on planet Earth to a Martian landscape,” he says .

Southern New Mexico has long held claim to the skies, thanks in part to pioneers with local ties, like Robert Goddard, a father of modern rocketry; J. P. Stapp, a leader in aerospace safety; and Ham, the space chimp.

You might also include Gary Whitehead, 43, affable car salesman from Truth or Consequences, though not because his family’s dealership was once owned by the former astronaut Frank Borman. Mr. Whitehead, a longtime public servant, has been championing a spaceport in New Mexico since 1994.

Back then he was a freshly elected member of the Sierra County Commission, captivated by an entity that had been created by various visionaries and politicians. Its understated name: the Southwest Regional Space Task Force. Its over-the-top goal: to have a spaceport built in southwestern New Mexico one day.

Mr. Whitehead wanted in, so he created a space task force for Sierra County. Word soon spread that if you wanted a deal on a car, or information about the economic possibilities of the great beyond, Gary Whitehead was the man to see.

Few people in Truth or Consequences dismissed the spaceport plan as “crazy Buck Rogers stuff,” Mr. Whitehead recalls. Then again, this is the sleepy spa city that, in 1950, changed its name from Hot Springs because Ralph Edwards, the host of “Truth or Consequences,” promised to broadcast from the first town to adopt his radio show’s name.

(Over the years the city has voted to keep the name, perhaps as a way of giving thanks that the offer had not come from, say, “Bowling for Dollars.” It has also named a park after Mr. Edwards, who for a half-century returned every year to celebrate the city that called his bluff.)

The concept of a spaceport remained just that for many years, even though it seemed to make perfect sense. An 18,000-acre stretch of the Cain family ranch was an ideal location for a spaceport. The restricted airspace of the White Sands Missile Range meant uncluttered skies for launchings. And with the high elevation, you could argue that a space launching’s first mile was free.

Finally, about five years ago, things began to click. Since then, New Mexico has added the spaceport to its economic development plan; Virgin Galactic, the commercial space travel business of the British billionaire Richard Branson, has signed a 20-year lease; construction has begun; and 326 people have placed reservations for their trip to suborbital space. Virgin Galactic says it has received $44 million in deposits so far.

What’s more, most residents here seem open to the idea. Two of three local counties have voted to support a sales tax to help pay for the space project, including Sierra County, where Mr. Whitehead was a co-chairman of a lobbying campaign called People for Aerospace.

By now, Spaceport America has been part of the local conversation for so long that it stirs about as much excitement as a new Applebee’s. Last year, for example, The Las Cruces Sun-News published a headline that read: “Spaceport, Animal Shelter Board Members Chosen.”

Mr. Whitehead, though, has gone from ho-hum to wow. At first he saw the project merely as a way to lift the local economy, he says. But as the project took shape, he felt awe. “It became, ‘Gee whiz,’ ” he says.

Mr. Whitehead, who was recently appointed to the state’s Spaceport Authority, which is overseeing the project, checks in at the village of construction trailers that have cropped up amid the desert brush. Accompanied by Dave Wilson, a marketing consultant, he leads a quick hardhat tour, past signs that say “Caution: Equipment Crossing” and “Authorized Launch Personnel Only.”

Right here, where the ground is being cleared, or “grubbed,” will be the 110,000-square-foot Terminal Hangar Facility, which will also include administrative offices. And here, close to the unfolding ribbon of runway, is where a groundbreaking ceremony in June featured actors dressed as Old World explorers and dignitaries discussing the New World discovery of the heavens.

And here, not far from the home of a ranch hand, is the Vertical Launch Facility, where several space vessels have been shot into the sky. One, in 2007, contained some of the cremated remains of dozens of people, including the astronaut Gordon Cooper and James Doohan, who played Scotty in “Star Trek.”

Of course, the hope is to send people, not ashes, into space. This could — could — happen as early as 2011, although Virgin Galactic says that it is concentrating first on matters of licensing and, especially, safety.

Still. Imagine. A mothership named Eve zooms off the runway and 50,000 feet into the sky, where it releases a smaller spaceship, the Enterprise, that rockets higher still. High enough for the two pilots and six paying customers to see the curvature of the Earth, and hear the silence of space.

Imagining this is not difficult for Mr. Whitehead. His problem, he says, is convincing people that “there’s more to this than rich people flying to space.” These customers, he says, will effectively be underwriting the possibility for space research, space education and all sorts of “space-related businesses.”


The tour ends, and is followed by a long trip back to Truth or Consequences, where the lot at Whitehead Chevrolet is filled with earthbound vessels, new and used. But the artwork on display inside — Van Gogh’s mysterious night skies — reflects the starry, starry dreams of a car dealer in a place known to accept dares.

This Land
Dan Barry takes readers behind news articles and into obscure and well-known corners of the United States.