Countdown to space tourism

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Virgin Galactic's White Knight Two carrier aircraft on the tarmac at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
Virgin Galactic's White Knight Two carrier aircraft on the tarmac at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Virgin Galactic's recently announced move to Spaceport America signals the long-awaited final countdown to the launch of Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space tourism venture.

In New Mexico, it also ushers in a long-awaited -- and at times seemingly lost -- opportunity for promoting the futuristic spaceport and the state as a destination at the forefront of space tourism history.

That was a top priority for former state tourism secretary Monique Jacobson, who in 2011 enthusiastically predicted that the glass-walled architectural marvel that rises from the high desert would become as iconic as the Sydney Opera House.

But eight years, two tourism secretaries and a new governor later, the announcement earlier this month by Branson that Virgin Galactic would finally be moving to the $220 million home New Mexico built for his space launches sent the state's new slate of leaders scrambling to dust off and redraw plans for what will, if all goes according to plan, become the first site dedicated to launching civilians into space.

After all, cash-strapped legislators -- weary of funding basic operations at the largely empty facility that Spaceport America CEO Dan Hicks likens to a city in the middle of the desert -- long ago scrapped plans for things like a Disney-style visitors center with interactive educational exhibits. 

Promotional plans fell by the wayside as Virgin suffered years of setbacks, including a crash in the Mojave Desert that killed one of its pilots. Lawmakers, who only recently began seeing budget surpluses, had at times even threatened to sell the building as the commercial space tourism industry overall developed much more slowly than originally anticipated.

Aimee Awonohopay, spokeswoman for new tourism secretary Jen Paul Schroer, said, "We did get a special appropriation [from legislative budget writers] specifically for Virgin Galactic and a possible upcoming initial launch sometime during the fiscal year. But the announcement really didn't give us much time to plan."

Schroer said that while a formal tourism promotion plan for Spaceport America is still in the works, the department knows "all eyes are going to be on New Mexico. ... And we want to be sure we are presenting New Mexico in the best possible light."

From left, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Richard Branson and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham celebrate Virgin Galactic's move to Spaceport America.
From left, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Richard Branson and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham celebrate Virgin Galactic's move to Spaceport America.

Hicks said he is working closely with all of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's new cabinet members, overseeing things like highways, homeland security, public safety, tourism and economic development to not only prepare for the expected onslaught of media and spectators for the first Virgin Galactic launches but also to keep developing the spaceport for more tenants and visitors.

Awonohopay said the tourism department's charge "will be extending stays and encouraging repeat visits."

While there are currently about a dozen spaceports licensed in the U.S., New Mexico's is unique in that is the first in the world to have been built from scratch, specifically for private commercial space operations. And with Virgin always intended as its anchor tenant, plans were always on the table to also promote it heavily as a tourism attraction.

Awonohopay said the tourism department will be working with local tourism entities to include Spaceport America in their promotional activities. A recent tour of the facility also underscored the need to revive plans for beefing up the visitor experiences, she said.

Perhaps best positioned and best prepared to benefit from space tourism is Las Cruces, a city of 100,000 about 50 miles from El Paso, Texas, and the Mexican border that has always been in the shadow of central and northern New Mexico's better known destinations: Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos. 

Gateway to Spaceport America

With a 30-mile road (only recently paved) specifically built to connect the spaceport to Las Cruces, the city will also be where passengers paying $250,000 a head for spaceflights will be based when they and their friends and families arrive to prepare for the journey. The Hotel Encanto has for several years partnered with Virgin to become the official hotel for astronauts, upgrading some rooms and suites to accommodate the kinds of clientele who can afford the adventure.

Jamila Gilbert, director of marketing and communications for Visit Las Cruces, said, "These are exciting times. We've been hearing the words 'suborbital space travel, commercial space flight and space tourism' for so long. Every now and again I hear myself saying it, and I think it's like science fiction."

Visit Las Cruses recently launched a website promoting the city as the gateway to Spaceport America. It also highlights the nearby White Sands Missile Range and its role in developing the nation's first space program.

Half-day tours of Spaceport America are currently operating from the Visit Las Cruces offices, and Visit Las Cruces is working with local hotels to develop special packages for visitors who are interested in seeing Spaceport America and White Sands National Monument and the missile range.

The city will also be highlighting other sites and activities, including the world's only Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University, the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum, hiking in the Organ Mountains and birding at wildlife refuges.

Still uncertain is when Virgin will make its first flight and if it will make history as the first line to take paying passengers into space. Both Virgin and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin have said they hope to begin space tourism flights this year.

"Those are going to be the newsmakers this summer, this fall," said Commercial Spaceflight Federation president Eric Stallmer, who added that Bezos also recently held a press conference to unveil plans for creating a base on the moon to develop the infrastructure needed to enable his vision of creating places for people to live in and visit in space.

"That's what makes this industry so very exciting right now," Stallmer said. "There's no shortage of advances." 

Branson, who has said he intends to be on the first Virgin Galactic flight, said earlier this year that he hoped to have the first launch on July 20, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, but company officials declined to offer specific timelines. And Hicks said he doubts that is doable, given that Virgin said it would be moving its spacecraft and employees from its testing base in the Mojave Desert throughout the summer.

They also have at a least a few more test flights to do from New Mexico, though exactly how many remains unclear.

"That's really a function of his test engineers," Hicks said. "What they do after each flight is look at the data and the matrix of information that they are supposed to supply the FAA. Then they determine how many more [tests there will be] based on that."

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