New Mexico Looks to the Skies with Spaceport

A first-of-its-kind rocket launch from a commercial spaceport in New Mexico sputtered Monday, but it may yet prove the first step towards affordable space tourism. The project could be an economic boost for southern New Mexico, too.

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A private rocket malfunctioned after takeoff from New Mexico yesterday. It was supposed to go up 350,000 feet but made it only 40,000.

Still, it was the first launch from the boldly named Spaceport America. It's one of several planned commercial spaceports. NPR's Ted Robbins reports on what's behind that name.

TED ROBBINS: Hundreds of spectators were thrilled to see the 20-foot-long private rocket blast into the sky.

Unidentified Man: ...two, one, fire.

(Soundbite of cheering)

ROBBINS: And even after the rocket corkscrewed off course, people remained upbeat. After all, this was just the first launch from Spaceport America.

Lonnie Sumpter heads the New Mexico Spaceport Authority. He hopes the launch will help fuel no less than a second space age.

Mr. LONNIE SUMPTER (Executive Director, New Mexico Spaceport Authority): And that's the commercial space age, so that everyone can fly a payload into space if they want to for a couple hundred bucks on a vehicle like this. Or, later on, take a ride into space and be an astronaut if they want to.

ROBBINS: Right now there are just a few trailers, a dirt road and a concrete launch pad on 27 square miles of desert. The state has paid for that, and New Mexico governor Bill Richardson wants the state to spend $225 million more for runways, hangars and training facilities.

So far, the state legislature has put up $100 million. But Sumpter says it's really like a city building an airport.

Mr. SUMPTER: The city builds the infrastructure at the airport - the runways and hangars and terminal buildings - and then the airlines pay for using it.

ROBBINS: At the moment, New Mexico voters don't seem to see it that way. According to a recent poll by The Albuquerque Journal, 56 percent oppose using state money for the spaceport. Brian Sanderoff conducted the poll.

Mr. BRIAN SANDEROFF (President, Research & Polling, Inc.): Spending state funds on a spaceport is a pretty futuristic notion and many New Mexicans perhaps are more concerned about spending tax dollars on more immediate problems.

ROBBINS: But even if some of the plans come to fruition, Sanderoff thinks public opinion could change.

UP Aerospace, the company behind the first launch, says when the kinks are worked out, anyone can send payloads into space at affordable prices. What sort of payloads? Well, UP Aerospace CEO Eric Knight says the first rocket carried cremated human remains, experiments by college and high school students and Cheerios.

Mr. ERIC KNIGHT (CEO, UP Aerospace): Eight Cheerios. A family of four wanted to be the first family to be able to sit around the breakfast table and be saying that we're eating a cereal that's been in space.

ROBBINS: Next month the company is scheduled to launch, among other things, the cremated remains of James Doohan - Scotty on Star Trek. And listen to this, plans also call for a rocket racing league, described as NASCAR in three dimensions.

But the anchor tenant for Spaceport America will be Richard Branson's company, Virgin Galactic. It plans to fly people into space from here by the end of the decade for $200,000 apiece. The company says about 100 people have already paid and thousands more have made reservations.

Lonnie Sumpter says that kind of demand is what will really make the state's investment worthwhile.

Mr. SUMPTER: So there'll be all kinds of jobs created by this not just at the spaceport but there will be a big boom in tourism, so hotels and restaurants will benefit from it. It'll be a good time to be in the real estate business out in this area.

ROBBINS: But anyone involved with space travel even as a spectator knows the ride from takeoff to touchdown is likely to be bumpy and filled with delays.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

(Soundbite of rocket engine)

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