CORRECTED-FEATURE-Moment of truth nears for sleepy U.S. town on cusp of space flight
(Corrects paragraph 5 to 700 instead of 600; removes "his" from paragraph 8)
By Mary Milliken
TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, New Mexico May 8 (Reuters) - After passing the sign reading "Danger Falling Aliens," New Mexico artist Roy Lohr and dog Yoda lead visitors to the "Spaceport" he has built in his backyard out of wine bottles and cement.
It's no wonder the lanky 69-year-old embraces the real Spaceport America in his town's backyard, the world's first space base built expressly for commercial launches and soon-to-be site of the first space flights with Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.
"It is hard for locals to realize the impact it is going to have, but it is slow coming and this is a tiny little town," said Lohr. But he has no doubt "things are happening."
The inaugural flight of the six-passenger SpaceShipTwo should take place this year, carrying Branson from the 12,000-foot (3.6 km) runway to suborbital space about 65 miles (100 km) from Earth.
"As always, safety will ultimately call the shots, but right now, I'm planning to go to space in 2014!" Branson wrote in an e-mail this week. The first of some 700 "astronauts," who have already paid $250,000 for the two-hour-plus flight and some minutes of weightlessness, should follow a month later.
After 10 years of conception and construction at the state-run, taxpayer-funded, $212-million Spaceport, the people of Truth or Consequences, population 6,500, are sensing a shift in confidence as the countdown nears.
While the economic windfall is difficult to estimate for the town that famously renamed itself after a radio quiz show in 1950, most everyone in these parts agrees the Spaceport should inject new energy into the somewhat tattered and totally quirky T or C, as it is known in local parlance.
"There might have been some doubt about how much T or C would be ready for all of this future endeavor," said Cydney Wilkes, who bought and renovated a motel with wife Val a few years ago and called it, aptly, Rocket Inn.
"I think that in the last few months that shifted ... that maybe we can pull up and measure up," she added, noting that the Virgin team is helping the hospitality industry spiffy up.
There's a new Walmart north of town, next to where a Spaceport visitors center will go up. It is not yet known where Virgin will lodge the astronauts for three days of training. It could choose the bigger town of Las Cruces to the south.
But T or C's townspeople are particularly proud that Ted Turner, the media mogul turned conservationist and local rancher, bought the historic Sierra Grande Lodge last year, citing myriad reasons, including Spaceport, his friend Branson and the famous waters of the dusty town once called Hot Springs.
'DEMOCRATIZATION OF SPACE'
The 30-mile (48 km) drive out to Spaceport America over the sparsely populated high desert plain is a journey through time. Paleo-Indians roamed here some 12,000 years ago, the Spanish built the El Camino Real passage here, a century-old dam across the Rio Grande brought settlement and White Sands Missile Range made it a gigantic area of restricted air space.
While Spaceport brings a futuristic vision to the old West, it is meant to blend in. The signature building, designed by the firm of British architect Sir Norman Foster, melds into the distant mountains like a giant portobello mushroom.
"It feels much more real, but it also feels like I am looking at something that is a set for a science-fiction movie," said visitor Doug Sporn while on the Follow The Sun tour to Spaceport after hearing Branson would go to space soon.
Branson isn't the only famous entrepreneur here. He is joined by Elon Musk's SpaceX, founded in 2002 with the ultimate goal of sending people to inhabit other planets. SpaceX, which already has craft supplying the International Space Station, has chosen Spaceport to test the Falcon 9 reusable rocket, meaning that it will launch vertically and then land intact.
"It really is the democratization of space," said Spaceport Executive Director Christine Anderson, "that you and I and our children and grandchildren can think about going to space, about going to Mars."
She estimates there will be 200,000 visitors per year to Spaceport "when all our customers are flying."
GOING TO SPACE WITH YODA
Those kinds of numbers are feeding the first shoots of space business, from Jeff Dukatt's psychedelic T-shirts sporting a cowboy-on-rocket motif to Follow The Sun's new Spaceplace tour base where freeze-dried ice cream is for sale and there is extra space for start-ups to operate.
"We don't know where the opportunities are going to be, we just know a facility like this will line us up," said Follow The Sun's Mark Bleth, echoing the kind of wonder around town about where this all could lead.
Then there is that lingering question of whether T or C can preserve the quirky character and Western ruggedness that has attracted free spirits and artists for decades.
"My guess is that the real culture and heritage of Southern New Mexico is pretty firmly ingrained," said Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. "I would doubt that just because we start doing our spaceflights the intrinsic character changes."
Lohr, the artist, relishes the "nice mini-culture embedded in a trailer town," and said Spaceport shouldn't detract from its charms, but rather attract more interest in them.
If he gets a free ticket, Lohr is game to go to space, but only "if Yoda would come with me." (Additional reporting by Lucy Nicholson and Alan Devall; Editing by Ken Wills)
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