(Corrects paragraph 5 to 700 instead of 600; removes "his" from
By Mary Milliken
TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, New Mexico May 8 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)