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Inside the spaceport

Alan Boyle /
Steve Landeene, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority's executive director, points

toward Spaceport America's vertical launch site from a simulated lunar lander pad.

Is Spaceport America ready to become New Mexico's newest tourist attraction? Mmm, not quite yet. But there's lots of wide open space, lots of potential and lots of hope that the spaceport will spark a domino effect of development and tourist activity.

If the plans succeed, Spaceport America and its surroundings could become a multibillion-dollar center for tourism as well as spaceflight - something akin to Florida's Space Coast with a Wild West twist. If the plans totally flop, the locale could wind up as a $198 million ghost town.

It's up to Steve Landeene, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority's executive director, to make sure those plans don't flop. "You've got to have a lot of vision here," he said.

Last Friday, Landeene was the lead tour director for a daylong bus excursion that headed out from Las Cruces, N.M., and rambled along miles and miles of interstate highway, paved thoroughfares and dirt roads to New Mexico's 18,000-acre launch site.

More people may be rambling that way in the months to come. Just last week, the spaceport authority announced that it would start conducting "hardhat tours" of the site and its environs in December. (Watch the Spaceport America Web site for details.)

Getting there is half the fun - and more than half the mileage. It's a 75-mile bus ride to Truth or Consequences, where a run-down fire station is to be converted into a welcome center. Then you're in for another 25 miles of sometimes-winding roads, passing close to the Rio Grande. If you're lucky, you'll see some of entrepreneur/philanthropist Ted Turner's bison grazing on the other side of the fence as you pass through the rangeland.

When the blacktop stops at the spaceport gates, a different type of adventure begins.

"We've now entered Area 52," Landeene quipped.

Alan Boyle /
Spaceport director Steve Landeene opens the gates to New Mexico's launch facility.

Landeene got off the bus and unlocked the gates leading onto the spaceport grounds. After the tour bus rolled through, he jumped back on and pointed out what he called the "crown jewel" of the facility - a bulldozed track as wide as a football field that stretches off toward the horizon. By next August, this expanse of reddish dirt will be transformed into the spaceport's 10,000-foot runway.

The $30 million landing strip could be used by suborbital space planes such as Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo - or by military drones such as the Predators and Reapers that currently fly out of nearby Holloman Air Force Base. The region's desert terrain, dominated by sand and sage, mesquite and cactus, is one reason why it's well-suited for combat practice runs.

"This has very typical range for the Middle East," Landeene noted.

The main threats on this day, however, didn't come from aerial attacks or rocket blow-ups, but rather from cowpies and rattlesnakes. "We did see a snake across the road five or six miles back," Donna Brown, the executive director of a Las Cruces hospice who was serving as a tour guide, warned us as we stepped off the bus.

Alan Boyle /
Heavy equipment is lined up along Spaceport America's runway construction site.

The orange fencing is used to mark off sensitive areas on the spaceport grounds.

Steve Landeene estimates the spaceport has used 19,000 linear feet of fencing.

In addition to the heavy equipment and the colossal stretches of plowed earth, we tourists were shown around a trio of landing pads, constructed for the contestants in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. The way things turned out, the pads weren't needed because rocketeers were allowed to build their own pads closer to home, in Texas or California. But the exercise won't go to waste: Landeene said the spaceport's pads will eventually be used for student launches of military-surplus Super Loki rockets.

About a mile farther down the dirt track, we drove up to the vertical launch site, with an erectable guide rail enclosed within its wheeled, trailer-like shelter. When it's time for a liftoff, the trailer is rolled away from the rail, the rail is lifted up, the rocket is slotted into place and rides up into the sky when the countdown reaches zero.

Alan Boyle /
Steve Landeene talks on a cell phone from the spaceport. Coverage varies. "If you have AT&T, you're out of luck," he says.

Earlier this month, Lockheed Martin and UP Aerospace successfully launched a prototype rocket plane. And in August, a rocket-powered drone was test-launched for the Moog-FTS aerospace company.

"That shows this isn't a joke out here," Landeene said.

The spaceport isn't anything to laugh at, to be sure. But some of the locals worry that the joke might be on them, particularly in the two counties that voted in a tax increase to help pay for the spaceport. In addition to those local taxes, state and federal money is being put toward the $198 million in construction costs, at a time when New Mexico is struggling to balance its budget.

"I sure hope we get a return on that investment," one Las Cruces resident told me privately.

Other worries cloud the horizon:

  • Ranchers worry that the spaceport will take away their water. (That dispute was due to go into mediation this week.)
  • Naturalists worry that the spaceport's buildings will ruin the mountainous region's beautiful "view shed." (Which is one reason why most of the spaceport's facilities will be built below ground.)
  • Residents in Truth or Consequences are raising objections about the number of gravel trucks rolling through their town. (Last week, one protester was arrested for blocking traffic, setting off an ugly confrontation.)
  • Environmentalists are conducting a survey to assess whether some of the region's wildlife will need species protection. ("That's a little problematic," Landeene said.)

Even when Spaceport America's main runway is in place, it will take at least another year to turn the facility into the kind of attraction portrayed in the "Star Trek"-style design concepts. The spaceport terminal is due for completion in 2011 - which looks to be just about the earliest time that Virgin Galactic could start commercial space operations.

Alan Boyle /
Turtleback Mountain Resort's golf course is one of the spaceport region's other attractions.

Merely building the spaceport won't be enough. Landeene is banking on other attractions, such as the 18-hole golf course at nearby Turtleback Mountain Resort, to provide well-heeled space tourists with something else to do in southern New Mexico. Other tourist draws could include dude-ranch cookouts, Billy the Kid historical tours and dune-buggy rides.

Success may well depend on whether infrastructure development, tourist attractions and spaceflight operations mature on a synchronized timetable. "It's the capability of the collective that allows us to do the work," Landeene said.

Landeene is already visualizing an amphitheater that could be built into a low-slung butte and provide great views of vertical rocket launches ... a "carbon-negative" electrical system that produces more power than it consumes ... and launches to orbit within 20 years. That's pretty heady stuff, considering that construction work at the spaceport is just now hitting its stride. But don't try telling Landeene it can't be done. 

"If somebody tells me I can't do it, I say, 'I'll show you. ... I'll do it,'" he said.

More on the 'Inside' track:

Friday's trip was offered as an add-on to last week's International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight. Check here and here for my earlier reports from the ISPCS. Join the Cosmic Log team by signing up as my Facebook friend or following b0yle on Twitter. And buy a copy of my book, "The Case for Pluto."