WASHINGTON Undaunted by widespread skepticism, New Mexico's effort to build the world's first commercial spaceport is nearly on schedule to open in late 2010.
Its intended prime tenant, Virgin Galactic, says the startup will also be ready for business by then, with more than 275 customers who have already paid $35 million total to book seats on spaceships that would launch from the high desert site and fly to the edge of space.
Many hurdles remain including environmental approvals and certifying the space-worthiness of Virgin Galactic's radical White Knight Two and SpaceShipTwo but the project got a major boost last month when voters in a second New Mexico county approved a sales tax increase to help pay for the spaceport. New Mexico officials are gleeful that they were able to persuade residents of Sierra County, a large and sparsely populated area with an average age of 55, to vote 2-1 for the tax increase.
"The space business is a very, very difficult one, and you never know what lies ahead," said Kelly O'Donnell, chair of New Mexico's Spaceport Authority, which was conceived in 1990. "But we're moving ahead just as we hoped."
The spaceport, to be located just east of the town of Truth or Consequences, appears to have the jump on other ventures proposing facilities in Virginia, Oklahoma, California, Alaska, Florida and other states to support the next generation of air travel. Other nations are also getting into the act with Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, Dubai and Sweden all in some stage of planning spaceports.
O'Donnell said that once the federal government grants the permits, construction can begin quickly, because the authority has the $200 million it needs from the state and county governments.
Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, founded by entrepreneur-adventurer Richard Branson, said the company's mother ship (made of super-light carbon-composite metal) will make its first test flight in late summer. The company is working with the Federal Aviation Administration on safety and other issues, and the process is going well, he said.
"But we can't say exactly when everything will be settled, because, well, this has never been done before," Whitehorn said. The company is negotiating a long-term lease at the spaceport, which will be its international headquarters.
"We're in the very early stage of creating a new kind of air transport system," said Steven Landeene, executive director of the New Mexico spaceport. "Space tourism is the first phase, along with the commercial launching of satellites and spacecraft that can carry cargo and even astronauts to the international space station and maybe later the moon. But it's possible to begin thinking about a point-to-point network where passengers can rocket from one place to another at speeds much faster than today."
That future is still in the far distance. What New Mexico officials are working on now is persuading its citizens and the federal government that the spaceport will not harm the environment or the cultural and historic importance of the site.
In what advocates say is a compelling irony, the site is close by El Camino Real, the trail used from 1592 to the late 1800s by people traveling between central Mexico to what is now Sante Fe a 1,500 mile trek. The trail follows the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico, then turns east into the desert in a shortcut that eliminated 30 days of travel. The section is called "Jornada del Muerto" (journey of the dead) for its rugged beauty and sometimes tragic history.
Almost nothing of the trail remains identifiable around the spaceport site, but some historical and Hispanic groups have been skeptical or opposed to the plan because it would radically change the hardscrabble feel of a place with centuries of history.
Officials have tried to address the concerns with a design that would make the main spaceport facility invisible from the trail. Using high berms and a low-slung design, the futuristic structure would be visually swallowed by the scrubland. There would, of course, be no hiding the spacecraft as they came and went, but O'Donnell emphasizes that Branson's spaceship takes off like an airplane and that its rocket-propelled capsule will detach and blast off only after the mother ship has reached 50,000 feet.
One local historical group, called Carta, has dropped its earlier opposition to putting the spaceport so close to the trail president Patrick Beckett said the group is trying to "make lemonade out of this lemon" by getting commitments for a Camino Real visitors center and other improvements but some strong opposition remains.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a private, nonprofit group chartered by Congress, last year listed the trail as one of the nation's 11 most endangered historic sites. The Trust is represented on the working group for the spaceport, and some spaceport advocates worry that its concerns may slow things down.
Daniel Carey, director of the southwest office of the National Trust, called the trail a "unique cultural and international resource" that "needs to be better understood and protected." He said the spaceport authority has sought to minimize the project's impact, but "it's still a little like saying you'll plunk down a Wal-Mart in the middle of a historic district but will dress it up to make it fit in."
Spaceport officials see it differently. "To us, it's appropriate and even positive that El Camino such an important trail for pioneers of an earlier time goes by the home base of some of today's pioneers," O'Donnell said. What the final environmental impact statement will say will not be known until the end of the year.