TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M. -- While the death of a test pilot in the Oct. 31 crash of a Virgin Galactic rocket was a tragedy on many fronts, it also represented yet another in a series of setbacks for this tiny New Mexico town, which has been banking on -- and, like the rest of the state, helping to bankroll -- Richard Branson's pioneering vision of space tourism for almost a decade.
Ten years after Branson announced his plan to launch the first tourists into space, the futuristic Spaceport America that New Mexico taxpayers ponied up nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to build for his venture sits largely empty.
This nearby town of small, hot springs-based inns, RV parks and eclectic art galleries is located in one of two counties that approved local tax hikes on promises of being front and center in space tourism and the commercial space business. Yet, today it is shrinking rather than growing.
And even before Virgin Galactic's rocket crashed during a test flight, many across this poor, largely rural state had already all but given up hope of ever seeing spaceflights, let alone the tourism and economic boom that was supposed to bring a hefty return on their massive investment.
"Many people feel like Sierra County was duped," said local rancher Jim Taylor.
Despite the setbacks, however, others remain optimistic about the potential of Spaceport America and space tourism in general, saying that while the commercial space industry is developing more slowly than expected, it is the future of travel, and New Mexico will be at the forefront.
"It's going to happen," said local developer Randy Ashbaugh. "The [commercial space] industry is just in its infancy. This is like the Wright brothers."
Indeed, even as the crash in California's Mojave Desert erased any hopes of making good on his latest projection for starting flights early next year, Branson vowed to continue his space tourism mission.
"We do understand the risks involved," he said at a news conference following the accident. "And we are not going to push on blindly. We are going to learn from what went wrong, discover how we can improve safety and then move forward."
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said it could be a year before they determine exactly what happened.
Spaceport America Executive Director Christine Anderson said last week that it was too soon to know what impact the crash would have on the fledgling spaceport. But so far, it has had lackluster success attracting key commercial space players and is struggling to finance the paving of a direct road to Las Cruces as well as constructing a visitors center along I-25 in Truth or Consequences.
"At this point, we just have to wait and see, because we don't know what kind of delay there will be," she said. "I would imagine there would be some sort of impact, but we don't know how large it is."
Even so, Anderson said she is confident the accident won't deter the commercial space industry as a whole, pointing to fatal accidents that also marked the early days of aviation as well as NASA's moon launch and shuttle programs.
The pilot was the fourth employee of the rocket's manufacturer, Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites, to die in the development of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo. What's more, the crash occurred only three days after another private-sector space vehicle, an Antares rocket on a resupply mission to the International Space Station, exploded moments after it was launched.
"You keep learning and you keep moving forward," Anderson said. "The commercial space industry will move on. This [the SpaceShipTwo crash] is a test flight. So it's unfortunate that these things happen, but they do happen when you're testing. Hats off to the brave pilots who volunteer to be test flight pilots. That's the real tragedy here, that a life was lost. But it's certainly not going to have a major impact on commercial space [activities], nor should it."
Spaceports seeing rapid development
The $219 million Spaceport America is one of nine licensed spaceports in the country. Arguably, it is the most visible thanks to the high profile of Branson, a billionaire adventurer and entrepreneur who has achieved celebrity status, in part due to his marketing prowess and penchant for showmanship. It is also the only such facility so far to have been purpose-built from scratch.
Its roots date back to 2004 when Rutan, already a renowned experimental aircraft designer, won the Ansari X Prize by sending his WhiteKnight rocket and astronauts into space. The mothership, which looks like three planes connected at the wings, flew to about 50,000 feet, where it released the rocket, which then flew 70 miles into space.
Always the ambitious and futuristic dreamer, Branson contracted Rutan's Scaled Composites to develop a second-generation mothership and rocket. The improved technology was to be the launch vehicle for Branson's Virgin Galactic space tourism business, which for $250,000 a head promises 2½-hour flights into space, including about five minutes of weightlessness and views of Earth until now seen only by astronauts.
Early on, Branson saw the need to turn to the agent channel for such a novel, expensive and specialized product. He signed an exclusive deal with Virtuoso under which the consortium's member agents would receive training and the exclusive right to sell the product. To date, the company says, more than 700 people, including a slate of celebrities, have signed up.
"I am considered a 'Founder' passenger and will be one of the first 84 people to go up," Virtuoso Chairman and CEO Matthew Upchurch said in a statement after the crash. "My plans haven't changed; I still intend to go and fully support Virgin Galactic."
Branson also teamed up with then-New Mexico governor and presidential hopeful Bill Richardson to build Virgin Galactic's base on a remote stretch of land in the Jornada del Muerto desert basin, about three hours south of Albuquerque and an hour north of Las Cruces.
State lawmakers in 2006 approved using state money to build the $219 million facility, and Virgin signed a lease under which it agreed to pay the state based on the number of flights per year. With no flights yet launched, it began paying $1 million a year to New Mexico last year. With Virgin Galactic signed on as its anchor tenant, the state developed the spaceport in true Branson fashion, with modern, glass-walled architecture that rises over the remote southern New Mexico desert and the spaceport's 2-mile-long runway.
State Tourism Secretary Monique Jacobson has referred to it as New Mexico's equivalent of the Sydney Opera House, citing estimates that when fully operational, it will draw an estimated 200,000 visitors a year to the Land of Enchantment.
Speculators bought up land around the remote spaceport and Sierra County, envisioning new neighborhoods, hotels and businesses to support astronauts, space workers and tourists the venture would bring, and invested in infrastructure.
Even Branson himself, at a hotel conference in New York in June 2010, hinted that he might build his first Virgin-branded hotel near the spaceport to accommodate the legions of wealthy travelers he envisioned.
The flamboyant billionaire has attended several ceremonies at the spaceport, the first in 2010 to dedicate the runway with Richardson, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin and some of the first people who signed up to take the flights at $200,000 a head. (Last year, the price was raised to $250,000.)
A year later, during a dedication of the hangar with Richardson's successor, current Gov. Susana Martinez, Branson rappelled down the glass walls of the Virgin Galactic hangar with a bottle of Champagne.
"The building is absolutely magnificent," he said. "It is literally out of this world, and that's what we were aiming at creating."
But today, Virgin Galactic's space is still vacant, with all the company's test operations based in California's Mojave Desert.
And instead of developing a hotel in New Mexico, Virgin has entered a partnership with what is arguably Las Cruces' finest hotel, the three-star Hotel Encanto, which earlier this year announced plans to develop more upscale suites for Virgin Galactic's customers.
The only new hotel to actually be built in this area was a Holiday Inn Express along I-25 between the state's two largest cities, Albuquerque to the north and Las Cruces to the south.
In the meantime, for each of the last four years Branson has predicted that the company would fly "by the end of year," often then pushing that goal back to the following spring. Recently, on "Late Show With David Letterman," Branson said that the first flight might launch by March.
But even before the fatal rocket crash, many questioned the reality of seeing Virgin Galactic flights anytime soon.
In recent months, Pat Hynes, director of the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, had estimated that flights were still at least a couple years away.
The delays "are the reality of developing something so complex," said Hynes, who has purchased a ticket for a Virgin Galactic flight. She said recently that she had no plans to ask for a refund.
Like Branson, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides, a former NASA official, said the company would push forward with its mission, telling the Financial Times that a second rocket ship is 65% complete and could be ready by the time the NTSB probe is done.
"Space is hard, and today was a tough day," he said in a statement following the accident. "We're going to get through it. The future rests in many ways on hard days like this, but we believe that we owe it to the team that has been working so hard on this endeavor to understand this and to move forward. And that is what we'll do."
The company has already taken possession of the WhiteKnightTwo, the craft that carried the rocket to 50,000 feet before it apparently came apart in flight.
Whitesides said that Virgin Galactic pilots had recently made their first flight to New Mexico on WhiteKnightTwo, enabling them to familiarize themselves with the airspace around Albuquerque, White Sands and El Paso.
It is the development of the rocket itself, however, that has led to the repeated delays. Test flights were suspended earlier this year after it reached only 71,000 feet, far short of the internationally accepted boundary of space: 327,000 feet, or 62 miles. Officials changed the fuel, and the rocket was making its first test since when it crashed.
While the state of New Mexico paid to build Spaceport America, Branson also got a capital infusion for Virgin Galactic in 2009 from the investment arm of Abu Dhabi's government, which paid a reported $300 million for a 35% stake in the company.
Branson and Abu Dhabi have also announced plans for a spaceport there, which led to speculation at the time that Virgin Galactic might abandon New Mexico altogether. Under terms of the lease, Branson could walk by simply forfeiting his $2 million deposit.
But Branson insists that is not his intention. The Abu Dhabi spaceport as well as one being planned in London, he said, are part of a larger plan to build spaceports around the globe, both for launching telecommunications satellites and as part of a longer-term grand plan for supersonic travel using suborbital and orbiting spacecraft.
But even some who remain optimistic about space tourism in general question the reality of point-to-point space travel.
"The vehicles right now that are being developed cannot leave the United States because they are considered not eligible for export," Hynes said. "So while that's one barrier -- and it's significant -- the far more significant barrier is the technology barrier of point-to-point travel. Some people have an idea that point-to-point travel might be like it is in the airline industry, but that's unlikely given the technology that is known."
Whitesides said the company is committed to New Mexico, although it did threaten to leave in 2013 if lawmakers for a third year in a row refused to pass a law to exempt spacecraft suppliers from liability lawsuits. Florida and Texas, which have competing spaceports, had already passed such legislation and were attracting some other key players in the commercial space race.
Paradoxically, Whitesides has also in the past expressed concern that other companies were not coming to Spaceport America. Virgin Galactic, he said, had signed up for a "healthy spaceport" with multiple businesses that could divide the costs of the facility.
While Spaceport America promotes its remote, unencumbered airspace, sunny weather and high altitude as unique assets, executives of some space companies that would be likely tenants have privately cited the location as a drawback, saying it has little to offer in the way of lifestyle for employees.
The closest towns are Truth or Consequences, locally known as T or C, and the neighboring lakeside community of Elephant Butte. But like much of rural New Mexico, those towns are suffering economically. The county in which they are located has some of the lowest average wages in the state, and Truth or Consequences' Main Street is dotted with for-sale signs and empty buildings.
"There's just nothing here," said local rancher Taylor. "Even if Branson [SpaceShipTwo] flew tomorrow ... how long do you think the astronauts' wives would stay in T or C?"
Even the biggest, oldest bar in Sierra County, between Truth or Consequences and Elephant Butte, is closed.
"When the bars can't even stay open, you know it's bad," Taylor said.
Sidney Bryan, a real estate agent, art collector, owner of the Pelican Spa and chairman of the Sierra County Democratic Party, said things are worse, not better, than before Spaceport America was built.
"I think we are probably doing the worst in the state," he said of the county.
To date, two companies have limited operations at Spaceport. Up Aerospace and Elon Musk's SpaceX are using the site for some rocket testing, but no company other than Virgin has committed to basing its operations there. SpaceX, which is one of the largest commercial space companies, has launch facilities in Florida and California and has begun construction on a seaside spaceport in Texas.
Xcor, which is also developing a plane to take passengers to space, chose Midland, Texas, for its operations.
But Anderson said the state is in talks with other companies, including a new space tourism company out of Arizona that wants to launch less risky balloon flights into the stratosphere.
World View Enterprises recently completed its first small-scale test flight of a high-altitude balloon and capsule that would enable tourists to float 20 miles above the Earth for about two hours.
The company hopes to begin its $75,000-per-person flights in 2016, carrying six passengers and two crew members. The capsule will be large enough for the passengers to walk around, and it will feature a bar.
The system uses a balloon similar to that used in 2012 to lift Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner 128,000 feet to make a record-breaking 24-mile sky dive.
While no balloon could technically go into space, the selling point is the view of the Earth's curvature at such an extreme altitude, the company said.
With limited income, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority has had to delay and scale back plans for visitors centers and a new road to speed up the trip from Las Cruces, delays that have hampered its ability to promote the spaceport as a tourist destination.
Currently, Albuquerque-based tour company Follow the Sun runs buses from Elephant Butte on weekends, ferrying about 3,000 visitors a year to the spaceport.
But Anderson said she hopes to see that number rise next spring when a "visitors' experience" is set to open in 4,000 square feet of space that has windows overlooking the hangar where WhiteKnightTwo will be parked. The space will offer some 18 exhibits, with large, digitally enhanced murals and interactive kiosks about space and subjects like space medicine.
There will also be nonspace exhibits, including one about the archaeological finds during Spaceport America's development, and a trailhead map based on the state's "New Mexico True" tourism campaign promoting other destinations across the southern part of the state.
"It's a beautiful part of southern New Mexico," Anderson said. "As a tourist destination, New Mexico has a lot to offer. A lot of people go to northern New Mexico; southern New Mexico is interesting, as well. Now, we have Spaceport, a phenomenal space museum in Alamogordo, and White Sands Missile Range is close by."