Spaceport Plan Divides New Mexico Voters

Hope Hamashige
for National Geographic News
April 3, 2007
Editor's note: As of Friday, April 6, with all votes tallied, supporters of a tax to fund the spaceport outnumbered opponents by a very slight margin. But that count is unofficial until certified by county commissioners, which is expected Tuesday, April 10.

The question being put before voters today in Doña Ana County, a sleepy, scrubby swath of the New Mexico desert, is a novel one. They must decide whether to levy a new tax on themselves to help build the world's largest spaceport.

The 0.25-percent tax would cost each resident approximately $2.50 a month to help build Spaceport America, which would be located near Upham in southern Sierra County, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) north of the Doña Ana county seat of Las Cruces (New Mexico map).

The site is now just a concrete pad and a pair of trailers most often visited by grazing cows. But spaceport proponents envision a world destination bustling with space tourists and frequent rocket launches.

Meanwhile, a strong block of opponents says that residents of Doña Ana—one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states in the U.S.—shouldn't have to subsidize something they will probably never use. Currently tickets for space tourism flights go for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"It is going to be very close," said Bill McCamley, a Doña Ana County commissioner.

A Rare Opportunity

In many regards, southern New Mexico is a perfect spot to build a spaceport—and it has nothing to do with the well-known stories about alien landings and frequent UFO sightings.

The state boasts 340 days of crystal-clear skies, a sparse population, and commercial-free airspace over the military's White Sands Missile Range, which is adjacent to the site of the proposed spaceport.

The project's advocates, including New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, see an unprecedented opportunity to propel this part of the state into the future.

Their hope is that the area would become a hub for the burgeoning commercial space industry.

Already, they have some positive signs that companies want to bring business to southern New Mexico.

Private launch provider UP Aerospace has planned a rocket launch for late April out of Spaceport America to blast the cremated remains of 200 people into space, including those of actor James Doohan, who played Scotty on the original Star Trek series.

The Connecticut-based company has said it will use Spaceport America for its launches throughout 2007.

And last week Spaceport America signed on the highest profile tenant in the burgeoning business: Virgin Galactic, the space-travel company started by Virgin Atlantic Airways founder Richard Branson. (Read related story: "Virgin Galactic, NASA Team Up to Develop Space-Plane Travel" [March 20, 2007].)

The firm agreed to lease a hangar at Spaceport America for 20 years.

Virgin Galactic has a waiting list of 200 people who have paid all or part of the $200,000 ticket price for a two-and-a-half-hour suborbital ride. Buyers include actress Victoria Principal and designer Philippe Starck.

The company won't start sending clients into space until at least 2009 or 2010 while its ships undergo further testing.

"The space industry will continue to grow," said John Spencer, founder of the Space Tourism Society in Los Angeles, California.

"It is going to take longer than people want, but there are limitless opportunities."

The Opposition

But the notion of space travel, noted Oscar Vasquez Butler, a Doña Ana county commissioner, is lost on many of the county's residents. He expects the tax will not pass.

"People here don't want to be Buck Rogers," he said. "We like driving our tractors around."

Butler is one of the tax's critics. In his mind, the proposal amounts to poor people subsidizing a private enterprise that will cater to the wealthy.

He said he doesn't object to Spaceport America, but he doesn't want the residents of Doña Ana County to pay for something they are not going to use.

"We don't have enough money to pave our roads, and they want us to pay for a project that is going to be built in another county," he noted. "Philosophically, I can't support it."

The tax is supposed to raise $49.7 million over 20 years to help cover the $198 million overall price tag for building the spaceport. The New Mexico government will pitch in $140 million, while it hopes to raise the rest from the federal government or private investors.

The economic benefits are too far in the future and still too unknown for locals to pass the tax, Butler added.

No Means No

The state legislature isn't likely to pursue the project if the vote today fails.

When it agreed to pay the bulk of the spaceport's cost, the New Mexico government required three local counties to kick in a share, since they are the ones who will benefit from any new jobs that come to the area.

In addition to Doña Ana, Oterra and Sierra Counties must also provide tax revenue, though they are awaiting today's results before scheduling referendums.

McCamley and other supporters cautioned that if voters refuse to pass the tax, space entrepreneurs like Branson will take their business elsewhere, and New Mexico will lose a historic opportunity.

Spaceship designer Burt Rutan is developing the vehicle that Virgin Galactic will use at California's Mojave Air and Space Port, where Virgin Galactic will launch its first space tourists before moving to New Mexico.

If the Doña Ana spaceport fails, Virgin Galactic may decide to stay in California.

And plans for other spaceports are underway in Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, and Florida.

Without the tax, New Mexico's spaceport plans are effectively dead.

"Unfortunately, there is no Plan B," McCamley said.

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