Monday, May 20, 2024

From his tiny gem store in southern New Mexico, Robert Hanseck spends his days untangling chakra beads and answering questions about the healing properties of amethyst crystals. After four decades behind the register, he has met thousands of wellness-minded tourists eager to explore the hot springs that span the region. But he almost never sees the type of traveler he was promised would transform his small town of Truth or Consequences: space enthusiasts.

“It’s been a flop,” he said of Spaceport America, a project that was conceived as the vanguard of commercial space travel — and that has been promoted by state officials for more than two decades as a launchpad for the local economy.

Less than a mile up the road, Arthur Burger, who owns an art gallery, recounted the moment in 2021, not long after he moved to town, when he watched in awe as a rocket plane soared into the sky beyond the nearby mountain range. He remembers the resounding boom.

After years of delays, Virgin Galactic, the anchor tenant at Spaceport America, had sent its founder, Richard Branson, and a team to the edge of space — evidence at last, many in the area thought, that New Mexico was a front-runner in the commercial space race.

“That week, people came in from London, from Taipei,” Mr. Burger said. “It was surreal.”

In this stretch of rural New Mexico, there are plenty of opinions about Spaceport, a futuristic structure on a desolate stretch of desert that has cost more than $200 million in state and local funds. Residents of Sierra County, which includes Truth or Consequences, and neighboring Doña Ana County have contributed millions from sales taxes to help subsidize the venture.

Many say they are tired of waiting for the payoff that was supposed to come from aerospace-related jobs and from tourists drawn like storm chasers to the scene of the action. But others see it as an ambitious bet on the future that has finally begun to produce results.

This year, Virgin Galactic has conducted six Spaceport launches, the most in any year so far, blasting researchers and space tourists who can afford the $450,000 ticket toward the edge of space. Virgin Galactic uses a carrier aircraft to take a rocket plane about 45,000 feet above Earth, and from there it disconnects and propels passengers to an altitude of more than 50 miles. Despite the recent momentum, another setback came in November when Virgin Galactic laid off 185 employees — 73 in New Mexico — reducing the company to around 800, and said it would suspend flights in mid-2024. The layoffs, according to the company, are meant to allow Virgin Galactic to focus resources on a new class of suborbital space planes.

For Amanda Forrister, the mayor of Truth or Consequences, the idea that Spaceport will one day reshape her community still feels possible, but far from a guarantee. “It is a bit of a question mark,” she said.

Getting In on the Ground Floor:
The allure of rockets, space and what exists beyond us has deep roots in New Mexico. After a military balloon crashed near Roswell in 1947, that southeastern New Mexico town became part of the zeitgeist, driving decades of conspiracy theories from people who believe it was the crash site of an unidentified flying object used by aliens. The world’s first atomic bomb, developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the northern part of the state, was detonated at what is now the White Sands Missile Range, where the U.S. military still tests rockets.

So in late 2005, when Gov. Bill Richardson announced a plan to collaborate with Virgin Galactic on a commercial spaceport in the state, it sounded to many like a natural fit, and a potential boon. “This is a unique opportunity for New Mexico to be on the ground floor of a new industry that will bring new companies, more high-wage jobs and opportunities that will move our state’s economy forward,” Mr. Richardson, who died in September, said when signing enabling legislation three months later. The reality of commercial space travel felt firmly within reach, and almost immediately Mr. Branson’s company began taking spaceflight reservations at $200,000 apiece. In 2006, construction began about 30 miles east of Truth or Consequences and ultimately used $218.5 million in public funds. From a distance, the circular structure, on 18,000 acres of sagebrush and yucca, looks almost like something from a sci-fi film. Cattle guards line the two-lane road that leads to its entrance. More than half the money to build it was allocated by the state, and the rest — $76.4 million — was generated from taxes in the local counties. Voters in Doña Ana County approved a 0.25 percent gross receipts tax to support Spaceport in 2007, and Sierra County voters followed a year later. A state report released in 2005 estimated that by 2020, Spaceport could result in $550 million of additional annual economic activity and bring roughly 4,300 jobs to the area. “The economic impact of this new spaceport is potentially quite large, reflecting the strong upscale potential of the nascent space tourism industry,” the report said. The report also forecast 376 suborbital launches in 2019.

In reality, it has created only a small fraction of that — $138 million in economic output in 2022 and about 800 jobs generated, according to a recent report from Spaceport. The first human spaceflight was in May 2021. “Looking at the numbers and what has taken place over the years, it’s been a bad investment,” said Shannon Reynolds, a Doña Ana County commissioner. RedirectToAction of Virgin Galactic, the Anchor Tenant at a Spaceport:…

Check out our other content

Check out other tags:

Most Popular Articles