Imagine a futuristic high-tech spaceport rising from the arid desert terrain near Wendover or blended into the pastoral country landscape of Grouse Creek.

Sound like someone's strange science fiction fantasy?Maybe. But five rural Utah counties are gambling considerable time, effort and paperwork to find out if their future holds a $500 million commercial spaceport.

NASA and a consortium of aerospace companies that have joined forces in the VentureStar reusable spaceship program are collecting spaceport site proposals from 16 states including Utah.

The goal is to have two spaceports - a primary and a secondary port, located in two different states - fully operational by December 2003.

That's when the VentureStar, billed as the world's first "space plane," is scheduled to begin shuttling cargo into space at a bargain-basket price of $1,000 per pound.

So far, officials from Tooele, Iron, Beaver, Box Elder and Millard counties have said they're interested and are working with a state agency to put together enough data to see if they qualify for further consideration.

"This is an open bidding process and NASA has encouraged us to submit as many RFQs - requests for qualification - as we want," said Sharon Young, director of Utah's National Business Development Office. "We can submit the requests until Sept. 8 at 5 p.m."

During a subsequent review period, she said, NASA and the VentureStar partners will screen the qualifications of various sites in all 16 states. Invitations to submit formal siting proposals will be issued to promising prospects during late November.

Young met Wednesday with representatives from Box Elder, Beaver and Millard counties and with officials from Iron County on Thursday to discuss preparation of their qualifying materials.

In Wendover, a small Utah community that recently needed county help to save its struggling airport, council members met Wednesday night to discuss submitting a proposal for a spaceport site south of the airport.

City Manager Art Martines said VentureStar representatives visited Wendover last spring and indicated the proposed site offers a number of advantages.

"We're excited about what this could mean to our community," he added. "It could bring hundreds of skilled, highly educated people to Wendover."

For one thing, Martines noted, Wendover sits at an elevation of 4,424 feet above sea level.

"The higher the better," the city manager said, because being 4,000 feet closer to outer space would reduce both landing and takeoff costs substantially over time.

More critical, however, is the availability of utilities that can provide the spaceport with 41 megawatts of electric power, 100,000 gallons of drinking water, industrial water, natural gas, waste disposal and fire protection.

In addition, the spaceport will require about 5,000 acres of open land, a 15,000-foot landing strip and a local workforce of about 2,500 to build it.

Once construction is finished, Young estimated, it will take 400 to 500 high-tech and support workers to staff the facility.

"They (NASA officials) also are very concerned about having to fly over populated areas," said Young, so it's unlikely the spaceport will be located near large urban centers.

The dichotomy is that most rural areas with low population concentrations generally are limited when it comes to utilities, infrastructure and manpower.

Partners also want to keep costs down, she added, and would prefer an already-constructed facility that can either be renovated or shared with another party.

Given the scope of the reusable space-vehicle program, which is expected to cost around $4.5 billion, Young said the entire state would stand to reap the economic benefits of the project.

A half-size prototype of the wedge-shaped VentureStar spacecraft, designated the X-33, is scheduled to begin making test flights by 1999. About 10 of the X-33 landings have been tentatively scheduled for Michaels Field at Dugway Proving Ground.