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Thu, Apr 05, 2007

Spaceport America Future Sits On Launch Pad

Results From Referendum Vote VERY Close

Richard Branson's dreams for the future rest squarely on a proposed quarter-cent sales tax increase and New Mexico voter support.

Branson's Spaceport America, a $198 million launch complex designed to launch paying tourists into space from a location in southeastern New Mexico, would be funded by state, local and federal money. As Aero-News reported last week, a Dona Ana County vote on a quarter-cent sales tax increase proposal, held Tuesday, is critical to the mere existence of the project.

The increase is projected to raise $49 million, and is currently leading by only 238 votes out of 17,168 ballots cast, according to the Associated Press. Just 541 provisional ballots still wait to be counted. A final count is expected Thursday.

Should the Spaceport become a reality, the first rocket flights would begin in 2009 and would initially be suborbital trips offering five minutes of weightlessness with a price tag of about $200,000 per person.

But some folks say they have "no intention" of paying for some rich person's toys, especially in the rather poor southern New Mexico's ranching country.

"I do not see any reason that every time I buy a dress for my wife I should have to pay more taxes," said George Gandara, a 63-year-old Las Cruces business owner. Carol Garcia, 52, also of Las Cruces, said "It's just a rich man's dream that he needs us to help pay for. If it's your dream, build it yourself."

Proponents of the launch facility -- including state governor and presidential hopeful Bill Richardson -- have big plans for Spaceport America, which boasts upstart space tourism company Virgin Galactic as an anchor tenant. Virgin signed a 20-year lease last year to use the facility, and representatives with the company visited the area recently to scout locations for a future resort for passengers.

In February 2006, the New Mexico legislature approved $110 million to fund development of the spaceport through 2009...and plans are underway to build a 10,000-foot runway and terminal facility next year. The emerging inland spaceport, located about an hour's drive southeast of Truth or Consequences, NM, has already witnessed its first launch: a less-than-successful effort by UP Aerospace to send a small rocket into suborbital space.

Neighboring Sierra and Otero counties are holding off their own referendums, to see what the outcome of the Dona Ana vote will be. New Mexico's economic development director, Rick Homans, said he was expecting "a wider margin of victory."

"On one hand, there is a healthy skepticism and a great deal of caution about the project," he said. "And on the other hand, there is a lot of optimism for what it could do for the state."

Will Whitehorn, a spokesman for Branson's Virgin Galactic in London, said Wednesday his company would refuse comment until all ballots had been tallied.

Homans did say a defeat of the tax increase would, more than likely, doom the project. "Realistically, the project would unravel, very likely," he said.

Under the current plan, Virgin Galactic would relocate its headquarters from London to New Mexico, and bring some 200 employees with it if the referendum passes.

Democratic presidential hopeful Gov. Bill Richardson said the project would "do no less than mark New Mexico as the birthplace of the second space age."

He and other political leaders hope the project will also stimulate manufacturing and research industries in the area.

"The premise is that once space becomes accessible, then all sorts of things will happen in space and on the moon, and there's going to be a whole industry that supports it," Homans said.

The potential site is a 27-square-mile area near the White Sands Missile Range and would include a 10,000-foot runway with adjacent terminals and hangars. Such a runway could accommodate the aircraft necessary to take spaceships to an altitude of 60,000 feet for launch. There are also plans for and area for vertical rocket launch as well.

The southern New Mexico desert was chosen as a launch site because of the good weather, the large expanse of open desert and state support, said Branson.

"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," Branson said in 2005.

FMI: www.spaceportamerica.com

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