New Mexico's Spaceport America Takes Shape in Middle of Nowhere

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TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M. — After years of construction work, Spaceport America is close to hosting its first space tourists — and the locals who have been waiting all those years for the $212 million facility to bring an economic payoff say it's about time.

"There have been so many things this area banks on and it never seems to happen," Peggy Sherman said as she sat at the Happy Belly Deli here in her adopted hometown. "This is the first thing that's actually been built."

George Jepson, who's lived in Truth or Consequences for 14 years, has breakfast at the Happy Belly Deli.John Makely / NBC News

Brushes with fame are nothing new for this desert town of 6,500 inhabitants, situated 150 miles south of Albuquerque and 75 miles north of Las Cruces, N.M. The town changed its name to Truth or Consequences, or "T or C" for short, in 1950 to get the attention of a radio quiz show by that name. Before that, the place was called Hot Springs, best-known for its spas and its Old West connections to Geronimo and Billy the Kid.

Today, it's one of the poorest places in the state of New Mexico. Thanks to a sales tax levy approved six years ago, it's also on the hook for part of the bill for building Spaceport America, 30 miles to the southeast.

Now the residents of T or C and other nearby communities are anxious to find out what their money is buying, and whether the promised jobs and tourist dollars will be forthcoming. "For tourism here, it'll help —if and when it happens," said Jeffre Dukatt, who sells spaceport T-shirts at his psychedelic tie-dye shop. "I want to see the rockets flying."

Inside the spaceport

Virgin Galactic's Mark Butler wants to see the rockets flying, too. He's the program manager in charge of making sure Spaceport America's futuristic terminal building is ready to go when his company's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane and WhiteKnightTwo mothership arrive later this year.

Right now, those craft are still being tested hundreds of miles to the west, at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. But once the test flights are finished, sometime in the next few months, Virgin Galactic's flight operation will be transferred to the 18,000-acre spaceport.

Spaceport America is taking shape almost literally in the middle of nowhere, between the Caballo Mountains to the west and the San Andres Mountains to the east.

Spaceport America in New Mexico is ready for Virgin Galactic to move in and begin operations.John Makely / NBC News

As dawn breaks over the mountains, the terminal glitters dully like an immense brown beetle in the desert. A gravel road leads to a gate and a sentry station with an armed guard, and then to paved thoroughfares with street signs reading "Launch Loop" and "Asteroid Beltway." There's a smattering of trailers, a dome-shaped operations center, a 12,000-foot runway — and that huge, flat beetle of a terminal, designed to match the slopes of the surrounding mountains.

This is where Virgin Galactic's customers, who are paying as much as $250,000 each for a suborbital flight to space, will board SpaceShipTwo. They'll sit inside the rocket plane as it's carried up more than 50,000 feet and released by WhiteKnightTwo. When the rocket is lit, they'll soar at supersonic speeds to the edge of space, as high as 62 miles, for a few minutes of weightlessness and window-watching. Then the plane will descend to a gliding touchdown back at the spaceport, about an hour and a half after takeoff.

This isn't your typical airplane ride, and for Butler, that means Spaceport America's Gateway to Space can't be your typical airport terminal.

"What we've introduced is a kind of theater when the customer arrives," Butler said as he took NBC News on a behind-the-scenes tour of the 100,000-square-foot facility. The only condition was that no pictures could be taken of the still-unfinished interior.

When the interior is finished and flights begin, passengers will be funneled into an exterior walkway and through a Star Trek-style sliding portal.

Virgin Galactic's Mark Butler shows off the entrance to the Gateway to Space building where future astronauts will begin their suborbital experience.John Makely / NBC News

There's an elevated passageway that crosses over the terminal's 160-foot-wide hangar, which takes up almost as much space as a football field. When visitors look out through the passageway's windows, they'll be able to see SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo parked below.

"This is the coolest bridge on the planet, because it's the only bridge that goes across spaceships," Butler said.

The terminal will house lounges for the fliers as well as their families and friends, a flight simulator and a mockup of SpaceShipTwo's interior, plus medical facilities and offices. In addition to the customers, Virgin Galactic expects to have 80 employees, ranging from the pilots to the cleanup crews, commuting to work at Spaceport America.

The passengers will have three days before their spaceflight to get their last-minute training, most likely including a preparatory airplane ride designed to simulate the G-forces they'll feel on the big day.

At least in the beginning, those customers will be ferried to the spaceport daily from accommodations in Truth or Consequences to the northwest, or in Las Cruces to the southeast. There's a 24-mile stretch of rugged dirt road between the spaceport and the interstate highway that leads to Las Cruces, but New Mexico is putting in a $14.5 million upgrade.

"We'd love to have the perfect road, the perfect hotel, the perfect cellphone service," Butler said. "But we're realists about this. We know it's not going to happen on Day 1."

New Mexico's space vision

New Mexico's Spaceport Authority has also had to adjust its ambitions to match economic and logistical realities. "I never built a commercial spaceport from scratch before," Christine Anderson, the authority's executive director, joked as she sat in the facility's operations center.

No one has. America's other commercial spaceports started out as air bases, or government launch pads. That's what qualifies Spaceport America as the first "purpose-built" facility of its kind.

Christine Anderson, Executive Director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority , inside Spaceport America's mission control.John Makely / NBC News

The fact that the spaceport is more than half an hour's drive from anywhere complicates matters. The spaceport has to have its own water supply, fire trucks and resident crew of firefighters, for example.

"We have to be a totally self-supporting city out here," Anderson said.

Virgin Galactic isn't the spaceport's only tenant — Up Aerospace has been launching suborbital rockets for years, from a pad several miles away from the terminal, and SpaceX is gearing up for high-flying tests of its reusable Falcon 9R rocket. But there's no doubt SpaceShipTwo will take center stage once it arrives. So the terminal is as important to Spaceport America's image as it is to Virgin Galactic's.

Anderson said work is well under way on a 4,000-square-foot exhibit space that will be housed within the terminal and tell visitors all about the region's history — going back to the ancient tribes associated with more than 40 archaeological sites on spaceport property. The nearby El Camino Real trail and its Jornada del Muerto ("Journey of Death") shortcut will also figure in the story.

A larger visitors center is to be built by the fall of 2015 in T or C, near the town's new Walmart store. There's already a bus tour, but once Virgin Galactic's launches are in full swing, Anderson envisions expanding the bus service — and having more tourist amenities situated close to the spaceport.

"I expect more on that front as we progress," she said. Anderson and tourism officials project that the spaceport will draw 200,000 visitors annually.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane and its WhiteKnightTwo mothership fly over Spaceport America during a runway dedication ceremony in 2010.Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic

Bottom line? Up in the air

Are the expectations of a space tourism boom realistic? If so, the surrounding communities are going to have to gear up for the influx. If not, it'll be one huge letdown for the locals. "There ain't that much going on out there for all that money," Steve Otte, a 64-year-old retiree who lives in Acoma Pueblo, N.M., said as he filled up his car at a gas station in Truth or Consequences.

Some residents are also worried about the water, or lack thereof. When construction was at its height, the surrounding ranchers found that their wells were running dry — because the water was being sucked up for Spaceport America's use.

"There was a lot of grumble, grumble," Dale Antreasian, manager of the Rincon Water Consumers Co-op, recalled. After a round of protests, the situation improved — but there are still lingering worries about the spaceport's future thirst.

Another source of the grumble-grumble is the idea that millions of dollars in tax money are supporting a venture that was founded by a billionaire, Virgin Group's Richard Branson, and caters to millionaire tourists.

Steven Bleth, Operations Director of Spaceplace in Elephant Butte, hopes to earn Virgin Galactic's business and expand their existing tours of Spaceport America once the sub-orbital operations commence.John Makely / NBC News

Virgin Galactic's Butler points out that the company is already paying $140,000 a month under the terms of its 20-year lease agreement with the spaceport. And assuming that flight operations make the transition from Mojave on schedule, "we could be in the range of a couple of million annually by the end of the year."

However, even Butler realizes that Virgin Galactic's lease payments won't be the main economic payoff for New Mexico. "The sustained benefit actually comes from the jobs," he told NBC News — not just the 80 jobs Virgin Galactic plans to fill at the spaceport, but the jobs created in the surrounding communities.

Capitalizing on the potential opportunities is something of a chicken-and-egg challenge for Truth or Consequences. Who in their right mind would take a chance on sprucing up a luxury hotel in T or C before the rockets start flying? Billionaire Ted Turner, for one: He bought up the town's Sierra Grande Lodge and Spa and is turning it into a "launching point" for ecotourist adventures — perhaps including outings to his buffalo ranch, situated near Spaceport America.

On a slightly smaller scale, Val Wilkes, one of the owners of T or C's Rocket Inn, is hoping space fans will give her newly refurbished motel a boost. She said she's already putting up people who are coming to town to take the bus tour out to the spaceport.

"It's not just the millionaires who will be going," Wilkes said. "Those people have an entourage who can come and watch the day of. There's going to be an entourage looking for something to do for a whole week, stuck in New Mexico."

Val Wilkes, co-owner of the Rocket Inn in "T or C" as the town is known locally. A contractor, Wilkes is renovating the hotel one room at a time after buying it just a few years ago.John Makely / NBC News

What if the optimists are right, and the space tourism boom actually happens? Some worry about the effect on the area's laid-back, off-the-beaten-track ambience. "I don't know what this place would do if it got built up," George Jepson, a New Hampshire native who has lived in T or C for the past 14 years, said at the Happy Belly Deli. "I don't know what I would do."

But others want the buildup to come, and the sooner the better. At Sparky's Burgers in Hatch, the Western town at the end of that 24-mile dirt road, cafe owner Teako Nunn eyed a pair of journalists who ordered his trademark green chile cheeseburgers.

"You're here, and these are two burgers that I probably wouldn't have sold without the spaceport," Nunn said. "We just need a road. We need to get that paved. That spaceport is the 'Gateway to Space,' and that's beautiful. But we need a road, just for the common people."

It's not just about the money, or the jobs. It's also about the future of Hatch, and Truth or Consequences, and Las Cruces, and New Mexico's common people. And despite all the "grumble-grumble" of the past few years, Dale Antreasian struck a hopeful note as she watched her grandson take a ride on a toy space shuttle parked outside Sparky's.

"If anything does happen, it will be good," she said, "and not just for the economy, but for the kids and the future."

NBCUniversal has established a multi-platform partnership with Virgin Galactic to track the development of SpaceShipTwo and televise its inaugural commercial spaceflight.