NASA it's not, but desert spaceport nears first launch

Visitors to Spaceport America must first navigate the frontier before reaching the final frontier.

Across dirt roads, through deep puddles, and past a few cows – where 4x4 is a way of life rather than an automotive trend – the outlines of a spaceport that will launch technology and people above Earth are just coming into view. For now, these 27 square miles of dirt one hour outside the town of Truth or Consequences mostly consist of two portable buildings, a corrugated steel shed, and two Port-A-Potties – one pink, one blue. Oh, and a launchpad, of course.

"It's going to take a long time – years – to make [spaceflight] safe for the general public so you can walk on [board], like [at] Southwest Airlines," says Jerry Larson, president of UP Aerospace, the only spaceport tenant here. "But it will happen."

In a sign that spaceport competition is now an entrepreneurial venture, Mr. Larson's company is scheduled to make the first launch from New Mexico's nonfederal spaceport – an airport for space travel – Sept. 25.

The 20-foot-long, unmanned rocket will carry a private payload that includes cremated remains, high school and university science experiments that will measure data such as gamma radiation and microwaves, and a Ziploc bag of 12 Cheerios being lifted as a whimsical gesture for a friend of Larson's.

Larson sees UP Aerospace's business niche as one that affordably launches payloads (not people) for clients that pay anywhere from $1,000 to $300,000 per trip.

By the scheduled 7:30 a.m. launch time Monday, Larson, sitting in one of the portable buildings, will put a key into the powerbutton and flip three switches to enable and arm the rocket, which will sit on a launch pad 4,000 feet away. Finally, there is the switch labeled "fire."

Flying as fast as 3,500 miles per hour, the rocket will be in space – 70 miles above earth – in 90 seconds. It will float for about four minutes before coming back down.

"You're not a spaceport," Larson says, "until you launch something into space."

Though UP Aerospace will launch from a swath of southern New Mexico known more for tarantulas and rattlesnakes, it joins a global race being injected with private money and aimed at launching into space John Q. Public rather than astronauts such as John Glenn – in much the same way that travelers drop into Las Vegas for the weekend.

The state of New Mexico is putting its money where its spaceport is. It has budgeted $100 million for permanent buildings, runways, and water, says spaceport executive director Lonnie Sumpter. A request for another $25 million for modern roads out to the spaceport goes to the legislature in January.

That won't be enough to finish the job. The spaceport will need another $100 million, and Mr. Sumpter isn't sure where it's coming from – maybe bonds, or federal funds, or local tax dollars.

"Enthusiasm is essential to moving forward in this kind of area," says John Logsdon, director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute in Washington. "If you knew there was a market before you started businesses, we wouldn't have business failures."

One company willing to take a chance is Virgin Galactic, whose aim is to send private citizens into space as "tourists." It is slated to be the premier tenant for New Mexico's spaceport. Manned flights out of Spaceport America could begin in late 2009 or early 2010, Sumpter says.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) counts seven proposed spaceports that are either private or state ventures, or some combination of the two, says FAA manager Herb Bachner. Those sites include Texas, Wisconsin, and New Mexico's Spaceport America.

The FAA is responsible for licensing spaceports in the US. The seven federal spaceports include household names such as NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California; they are mostly associated with government operations. On these federal facilities, private companies conduct one or two launches a year for items such as communication satellites, says Mr. Bachner, whose office works with applicants on licensing requirements.

The FAA has licensed six nonfederal spaceports run by a combination of state and private ventures. Their clients, too, are generally with government agencies. New Mexico's Spaceport America hopes to receive its FAA certification by mid-2007, says Sumpter, but in the interim it can conduct the types of launches UP Aerospace is doing.

New Mexico's Spaceport America and a handful of other spaceports are planning to open access to space for both people and cargo. Singapore and the United Arab Emirates are among the international locales that hope to get into the business.

While the first tourists will float in space for only a few minutes before returning to earth, space entrepreneurs such as Las Vegas-based Robert Bigelow are preparing space hotels they hope will dot the heavens.

"I have little doubt that eventually this sort of thing is going to happen," says Mr. Logsdon at George Washington University. "The question is, 'How long is eventually?'" It will take five to 10 years "to sort out the reality" of the space business, he adds.

Meanwhile, about eight miles down the rutted dirt road from part of the proposed site of the spaceport is the Bar Cross Ranch run by Ben and Jane Cain. They can barely work the satellite television, and don't have Internet access. Mrs. Cain fingers an award the couple received for 1994 New Mexico "Cattleman of the Year."

Indeed, they used to run cattle on the state land now slated for the spaceport, and still are leasing some of it, which has put them into negotiations with the state. They may stay on the ranch, where they've been since 1954, but aren't expecting their slice of desert to change overnight.

"They've been talking to us [about a spaceport] since 1991," says Mrs. Cain.

As the UP Aerospace rocket launches with a force of 14 Gs, the Cains say they may watch from the red swing on their front porch. "That's the talk of the world: What's up there?" says Mrs. Cain. "How can we get up there?"

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