Spaceport tourism remains grounded, for now

SPACEPORT AMERICA, N.M. — The wind is still whistling through the massive unfinished steel hangar doors at Spaceport America. The exterior is waiting to be clad with custom metal panels, and the hangar floor, where a pair of sleek spacecraft will one day sit, is still dirt.

Construction of the world's first built-from-scratch launch station for sending people and payloads into space has been stymied by everything from Mother Nature to construction delays brought on by working in such a remote stretch of New Mexico desert.

Still, the director of the $209 million taxpayer-financed project says the state is as committed as ever to finishing the project.

And so is Virgin Galactic, the space tourism venture founded by British billionaire Richard Branson.

“When you think about what we've had to build out here, all of it is challenging because we're building a whole city. There's water storage, a water treatment plant, getting permanent power out here, everything,” said Christine Anderson, a retired Air Force civilian official who was hired in March as the spaceport authority's new executive director.

“We're in the middle of the high desert country of New Mexico. It's very underdeveloped, so building way out here is very difficult,” Anderson said during a bumpy ride from the vertical launch area back to the massive terminal hangar building.

This slice of southern New Mexico is beautiful, but it's difficult. The few ranchers who live out here call it a no man's land — where there's little water, where only a hardy cow can survive and where the dirt roads are equal parts sand and rutted earth.

Add to that a lack of electricity, unreliable mobile phone service and the fact that the state of New Mexico has ventured into uncharted territory with the construction of the commercial spaceport.

The effort is unprecedented and complicated. Construction is more than a year behind schedule, and there have been building code problems, contractor disputes, costly change orders and weather-related delays.

There was also speculation that New Mexico's support for the project would wane under the leadership of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who came into office this year on a platform of reining in wasteful government spending and reversing the course that former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson had set.

Richardson was an ardent supporter of the spaceport, saying it would spur economic development, bring high-paying jobs and position New Mexico as a leader in the burgeoning commercial space industry.

Concerns about the Martinez administration having little interest in Spaceport America are unfounded, said George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic's president and CEO.

“There are always challenges as you transition between administrations, and I think they're going through some of those challenges right now. But overall we're pleased and we think things are headed in the right direction,” he said.

Martinez appointed new leadership for the spaceport authority and hired Anderson as the new executive director. The governor acknowledges that New Mexico already has made a big investment.

“She is eager for the spaceport to be successful and bring great returns to our state,” spokesman Scott Darnell said, pointing to the project's economic and educational potential.

Virgin Galactic, the spaceport's anchor tenant, has signed a 20-year lease and already has invested millions of dollars in the development of its spaceships, which Branson has described as “sexy beasts.” It recently completed another test flight of SpaceShipTwo's feathering technology, which allows the craft to safely re-enter the atmosphere.

More feathering and glide tests are planned along with rocket tests, Whitesides said.

Tickets for SpaceShipTwo cost $200,000. The 2½-hour flights will include about five minutes of weightlessness and views of Earth that until now only astronauts have been able to experience.

More than 425 people have made deposits totaling more than $55 million, Whitesides said.

So when will the first flight take off from Spaceport America?

Whitesides made no promises, other than to say the rough time line spans 12 to 18 months.

The trick for New Mexico is ensuring that the terminal hangar is ready, that the project stays within budget and that private investors can be brought on board to help build out future phases of the complex.

Progress has been made on the terminal hangar since October, when Branson, Whitesides and other officials helped dedicate the spaceport's nearly two-mile long runway. Officials say it's more than 80 percent complete and should be done by year's end.

The spaceport authority also has issued a request for proposals for developing a “visitors' experience.” This isn't going to be an average visitors' center, Anderson said.

“The first flight by Virgin, whenever that is, that one day the eyes of the world will be out here on Spaceport America. So I would like to have as much of it in place that day as possible,” she said.

Some critics still question whether Spaceport America will live up to its promise of drawing high-tech ventures to the state.

Whitesides, a former NASA chief of staff, and Anderson, who built a career on the cutting edge of aircraft, missile and space systems, said commercial space flight is no longer pie-in-the-sky.

“It's almost hard to believe. Sometimes I have to pinch myself that we're so close right now. It's an exciting moment,” said Whitesides, who will be among the early customers.

Judy Wallin, whose family has ranched in the area since the mid-1950s, agreed. Officials first approached her family in 1992 about the prospect of building a spaceport in this dry, desolate valley.

Their response: “A what? What for?”

“They told us we would see the day that you would be able to catch a flight here and go to Tokyo in 45 minutes. We thought that might be handy, but we couldn't imagine it,” Wallin said. “But now, this many years later, it's coming to pass.”

The roofline of Spaceport America blends into the landscape near Upham, N.M. Associated Press
The San Andres Mountains and pieces of construction equipment are reflected in the glass windows of Spaceport America. Associated Press
Dozens of metal panels will be installed on the exterior of the spaceport. Associated Press