LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Voters in a southern New Mexico county have approved a tax to raise an estimated $49 million toward a $198 million tourism spaceport, according to unofficial returns Thursday.
Residents of Dona Ana County voted on the sales tax Tuesday in what backers said was a make-or-break election for the state-supported Spaceport America.
“This positive vote for the spaceport ballot initiative means America’s new frontier begins in southern New Mexico,” Gov. Bill Richardson said Thursday. “I’m proud that the people of Dona Ana County chose a high-tech and high-wage future, with better math and science education, and expanded opportunities for young men and women right here in New Mexico.”
The complex would cover 27 square miles (70 square kilometers) of desert near White Sands Missile Range, where the U.S. launched its first rocket after World War II. Its anchor tenant would be British millionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.
Unofficial results from the county clerk’s office showed the tax leading by 265 votes out of more than 17,000 cast, with only 108 provisional ballots were left to be counted, county election supervisor Lynn Ellins said.
Provisional ballots are cast by people whose names don’t appear on the voting roster or who cannot meet identification requirements. The clerk’s office must check each ballot to make sure the person is registered and hadn’t already voted.
Two other counties — Otero County as well as Sierra County, where the spaceport would actually be located — still have to consider local tax measures. State officials say they expect to receive a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration in early 2008.
Branson envisions starting suborbital rocket flights, at about $200,000 a person, in 2009 — perhaps initially at the Mojave Spaceport in California. New Mexico's Spaceport America is slated for completion in late 2009 or 2010, and Branson has promised to move Virgin Galactic's headquarters to the state.
Branson has said he chose the southern New Mexico desert as a launch site because of the weather, the large expanse of open desert and the support of the state. “We’re about to embark on a wonderful adventure. ... We’re going where no one has gone before. There’s no model to follow, nothing to copy,” he said in 2005.
Eventually, Spaceport America could offer trips into orbit and beyond.
While Branson and New Mexico are pushing forward, they are racing against Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and others to make their dreams a reality. Bezos has been quietly buying land and recruiting engineers to create his own spaceport in West Texas.
Bezos' venture, Blue Origin, successfully launched a small, unmanned craft in a stretch of Texas desert about 120 miles (190 kilometers) east of El Paso last year. Another successful test reportedly took place last month.
This report was supplemented by MSNBC.com.
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