Fields of Dreams
Will starry-eyed entrepreneurs transform today's wide-open spaces into tomorrow's spaceports?
- By Ed Regis
- Air & Space magazine, May 2007
An epidemic is creeping across the face of the Earth, one that has nothing to do with bird flu, West Nile, or any other microbe in the news, but rather with a disorder that appears to affect the judgment of those afflicted and magnify their ambitions. It’s a uniquely 21st century technological manifestation known as…The Spaceport. Infected with enthusiasm for the new businesses promising to launch masses of humanity into space—Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, for example, has signed up as many as 1,000 passengers for an up-and-back trip—people have suggested building spaceports in places like Upham, New Mexico; Burns Flat, Oklahoma; Van Horn, Texas; Sheboygan, Wisconsin; Columbus, Ohio; and in Singapore, Sweden, Nova Scotia, and Australia. (For an interactive map, click here.)
The forces behind spaceport fever include national, state, and local governments, crown princes, private investors, dot-com billionaires, regular billionaires, aerospace engineers, test pilots, former astronauts, rocket hobbyists, and space cadets of every stripe. All seem to believe that spaceports will be the hot new industry, the next biotech, a completely novel sector of commerce that will produce tall geysers of cold cash and bring jobs, rocket paparazzi, and throngs of deep-pocketed tourists, spectators, and assorted space-niks swarming into the spaceport’s neighborhood. In a scrubby patch of southern New Mexico, for example, a spaceport—Spaceport America—is poised to bring economic salvation to a state that ranks 39th in gross state product.
“Potentially it’s 6,000 jobs,” said New Mexico governor (and now presidential candidate) Bill Richardson last year. “The potential for tourism, for jobs, for new technologies moving into New Mexico is huge.”
It was Richardson himself who was responsible for bringing Virgin Galactic to the state as Spaceport America’s anchor tenant—a feat akin to getting Microsoft to move to Santa Fe, perhaps, except for the minor detail that Virgin Galactic had, at that point, no operational spacecraft in the stable and wouldn’t for some time.
Jerry Larson, president of UP (pronounced up!) Aerospace, another Spaceport America tenant, is also bullish on the spaceport’s future. “There’s this huge market waiting there,” Larson told the Rocky Mountain News last September. “It’s a multibillion-dollar industry waiting to be birthed.”
Admittedly, in the case of New Mexico’s spaceport, a few skeptics were lurking in the wings, people whose somewhat more jaundiced visions were not of spaceports but of space pork. In 2005, the New Mexico legislature appropriated $100 million of the estimated $225 million required for spaceport construction, but state senator John Grubesic wasn’t having any of it. “This is your classic Old West story of your snake-oil salesman who comes to the dying town promising to revitalize it,” he said in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Unfortunately, people have bought it, hook, line, and sinker.”
(The “dying town” in this case could well be Truth or Consequences [née Hot Springs], about 30 miles west of the spaceport, population 7,289. That this gritty little village, composed mainly of gas stations, Mexican restaurants, saloons, Mexican restaurants, laundromats, and Mexican restaurants, could use some major revitalization was beyond doubt.)
But for all the P.T. Barnum hucksterism around it, it’s not as if the spaceport-to-riches scenario were built on nothing but dreams. On October 4, 2004, Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize, thereby demonstrating that private companies could launch humans into space. The week before the winning flight, Rutan and Richard Branson announced a deal whereby Rutan would license the SpaceShipOne technology to Branson for a new company, Virgin Galactic, that would take paying passengers on flights into space—to an altitude of 60 miles. A spate of other companies immediately announced similar plans but without proven technology to back them up (see “Go Ballistic!” Feb./Mar. 2006).