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Countdown to N.M. Spaceport Begins

By Andrew Webb
Journal Staff Writer
    In the 1990 television movie "Sparks: The Price of Passion," actress Victoria Principal played the mayor of Albuquerque, caught up in an imbroglio over a high-profile economic development project.
    In 2009 or so, Principal hopes to play the role of one of the country's first paying astronauts, possibly from one of the largest economic development projects in the state's history— a planned $225 million spaceport in southern New Mexico that officials hope will be the hub of a new industry.
    By plunking down the full $200,000 cost earlier this year, she became one of 100 "founders" of space tourism company Virgin Galactic, which has announced plans to eventually take 10,000 passengers per year into space from its proposed headquarters south of Truth or Consequences.
    "For me, this is a dream come true, to go into space and look back and see the earth, my home," Principal said during a Hollywood-style news conference at a Santa Fe hotel Wednesday.
    Gov. Bill Richardson and British airline and entertainment tycoon Richard Branson detailed plans for the elaborate underground spaceport during the conference, which attracted national media such as The Washington Post.
    "This sends a message that will be heard around the world— that New Mexico is a state that embraces entrepreneurs, adventurers and pioneers," Richardson said.
    Richardson said he intends to ask the state Legislature for $100 million in capital outlay and other public funds to begin construction over the next three years. The rest of the money would come from federal sources, such as runway improvement funds, as well as a proposed gross receipts tax that will be put to voters in southern New Mexico next year.
    The state will build the spaceport at a 27-square-mile site near Upham, at the western edge of White Sands Missile Range.
    Virgin has agreed to lease space there for 20 years. Annual rent will begin at $1 million, and as the company begins making money it will increase its payments to help cover the cost of the Southwest Regional Spaceport's construction, state officials said Wednesday.
    Two other companies, Starchaser and UP Aerospace, have made plans to begin commercial space services, such as lifting experiments into space, from the spaceport beginning next year.
    Branson said the project would "brand" the state around the world as the launchpad of the nascent commercial space industry. He said it will create jobs and draw tourists to this part of the state, which today is little more than rangeland.
    "This may even allow those aliens that landed in Roswell 50 years ago a chance to go home," he said.
    Studies completed by New Mexico State University and a private aerospace consulting company predict 2,500 to 3,500 new jobs in the area as the commercial space industry ramps up.
    Virgin plans an elaborate underground building, its circular top exposed and patterned like Virgin Galactic's logo. Its underground construction will help the company save energy that would have been used for air conditioning, said Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn. Several stories underground will contain offices, training areas and bays for Virgin Galactic's space vehicles.
    Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo craft will launch from the belly of an aircraft at 55,000 feet. Once it drops away from the aircraft, it will rocket to 3,000 mph, fly outside the atmosphere in an arc, and then glide back to Earth by itself.
    Passengers will be carried to a point about 70 miles above the Earth's surface, where they will be allowed to float around the glassed-in cabin for about six minutes and view the planet below.
    The entire ride will take about 21/2 hours. A trip also includes about 31/2 days of training. The price tag is expected to decrease as the flights— up to three per day— become more routine.
    "We're going where no one has gone before," Branson said.
    So far, 38,600 customers have either paid the full $200,000 or substantial deposits.
    Virgin Galactic expects to begin flights in 2008 or early 2009.
    Branson said he expects to be one of the first passengers. Richardson said he'll fly once the company starts launching from New Mexico.
    Silver City Democrat Ben Altamirano, the Senate President Pro-Tempore, and Santa Fe Democrat Ben Lujan, the Speaker of the House, said they expect lawmakers to support Richardson's request for the $100 million. If approved, it would be doled out over three years, pending the attainment of certain milestones.

E-MAIL Journal Staff Writer Andrew Webb