'The launch that we have waited for' arrives - Albuquerque Journal

‘The launch that we have waited for’ arrives

Jeff Dukatt, owner of custom screenprinting shop Dukatt ’71 in TorC, said he is hopeful Spaceport America will bring economic benefit to the city. (Reyes Mata III /For the Journal)

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TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES – As the Sunday morning launch of the SpaceShipTwo Unity approaches, southern New Mexico officials and space buff residents are preparing for an event that has been brewing for nearly two decades.

“Spaceport (America) has been in the works for over 20 years, and this is finally the launch that we have waited for,” said Sandra Whitehead, mayor of Truth or Consequences, the small city of just under 6,000 people about 20 miles from the 18,000-acre spaceport.

If weather and technical checks go to plan, Unity on Sunday will make its fourth rocket-powered spaceflight with a crew onboard from Spaceport America. That includes Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson, who will become the first billionaire to fly to space in his own rocket. Branson’s Sunday flight will come ahead of Blue Origin’s planned July 20 launch, when former Amazon founder Jeff Bezos plans to fly to space aboard the New Shepard rocket. The companies’ dueling efforts to bring tourists to space via commercial flights have been closely watched and highly anticipated.

“It gives me goosebumps to think about this event, and I’m excited it is happening in Sierra County,” Whitehead said.

Spaceport and Virgin Galactic officials are stressing that only people with formal invitations are allowed at the launch location. Spaceport America spokeswoman Alice Carruth said about 500 people have been invited. She added that law enforcement will be patrolling the area around the spaceport and will ask unauthorized visitors to leave.

The general public is asked to view the launch online at virgingalactic.com or to attend the “watch party” in the Truth or Consequences Civic Center, 400 West Fourth Street, which starts at 6:30 a.m. Sunday.

Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima also invited the public in his corner of the state to attend his city’s watch parties – one will be at the Rio Grande Theater, 211 N. Main St., and the other at Las Cruces City Hall, 700 N. Main St.

Miyagishima said he is looking forward to a new era for New Mexico.

“We want to focus on space tourism, so on Sunday that is going to be the driving force for kicking off southern New Mexico’s prominence in space tourism,” he said.

Hotels in the area said that the spaceport has positively affected the number of their reservations, but that this launch in particular has not brought in a huge spike.

“Reservations are doing well, but not exceptional,” said Sid Bryan, owner of the Pelican Spa in Truth or Consequences. “I think we will do more after the launch, as people learn about it. We’re expecting great things.”

Josh Koch, assistant manager of the Holiday Inn Express and Suites, agreed, saying he hasn’t seen an increase of reservations for the Sunday event, but he has “seen an increase over the past few months” possibly from nearby Elephant Butte lake opening up.

“But we do get groups who come in for rocket launches, like people from New Mexico Tech and New Mexico State University,” Koch said.

One hotel – the Comfort Inn and Suites – did indicate that the launch had brought in higher than usual reservations.

“This Saturday night we are maxxed out,” said Isabela Shetter, hotel manager. “The launch this weekend – a lot of people want to come and see that.”

Shetter added that whenever there is an event at the spaceport, she sees a spike in reservations at her hotel.

Residents in TorC are generally positive aboui the launch.

“I am so glad that space investment is making the transition from public funding to private funding, that is great,” said TorC resident Jane Wallen, while walking down a quiet downtown street Wednesday.

Wallen moved to TorC two years ago after being a frequent visitor to the community throughout the previous 20 years.

“It is great that there is a race among billionaires. Get it out of the public sector. Let public funds be focused on things that will benefit people, like housing for the poor,” she said.

Steve Burgess, a TorC resident originally from Montana, said he once heard somebody refer to the billionaire space race as a “carnival ride for the one-percenters.”

“But it is exciting that they are privately sending people up,” Burgess said.

Jeff Dukatt, owner of custom screenprinting shop Dukatt ’71, said he’d be more impressed if the millions of dollars invested in the spaceport was used to build state infrastructure, and to promote tourism.

About the launch, he said: “I’ll believe it when I see it leave the ground.”

Dukatt said he’s closely monitored the effect that the spaceport has had on tourism, and said he believes it to be negligible, but is hopeful it will improve with time.

Linda Johnson, a volunteer at the Truth or Consequences Visitor’s Center – which also houses the Spaceport America Visitor Center – said she is also hopeful for a positive impact from this launch and future launches. But she said if a surge of new residents moves in, she hopes TorC will keep its unique culture.

“It’s a great, laid-back atmosphere, but we don’t want to become a Santa Fe or a Taos,” she said.

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