They came from the north by helicopter, flying over scattered cattle and mesquite brush and yucca plants straining skyward. To the east was White Sands Missile Range, where the first atomic bomb was detonated, and further east was Roswell, where the streetlamps are little green alien heads. Below them was that old muddy snake, the Rio Grande, and just west, a town called Truth or Consequences. But the men on that cherry red Bell 206 LongRanger chopper were not sightseeing. They were headed to the middle of the desert, where they planned to launch a bunch of spaceships.
It was December 2005, and Rick Homans ran the New Mexico Department of Economic Development for Gov. Bill Richardson. Homans sat shotgun in the LongRanger and behind him were three Brits: two top dogs in a company called Virgin Galactic and the godfather of all things Virgin, billionaire Richard Branson. He had recently licensed technology that in 2004 won the $10 million Ansari X Prize by taking the first privately built manned ship to an altitude above 62 miles, the internationally recognized boundary of space. Branson was confident that by 2007 they’d be making that trip on a daily basis.
As the chopper flew deeper into the desert, the men shouted louder into their bulky headsets. Homans knew he might not get another chance to spitball with these men he considered some of the top branding minds in the world, and so he had them brainstorming, a round robin of hollering over the propeller noise, to figure out a name for the place they were headed. And Richard Branson was the one who finally said it.
The name was one that encapsulated all the ambition of the project, one that suggested a collective ownership — the hope that access to space would soon be available to anyone who wanted it. It was one that outshined the rather mundane Southwest Regional Spaceport, by which the project had been known for the decade before Virgin Galactic flew into New Mexico. It planted a symbolic flag, a gesture fashioned in roughly the same spirit as Armstrong and Aldrin driving the Stars and Stripes into the surface of the moon 36 years earlier. Here at the beginning there was more than a little bit of the old space race bleeding into the new one, even though the New Space Race was not about a cold war, but a commercial one.
And so they called it Spaceport America.
Almost nine years later and little is known about Spaceport America. All the talk is of Virgin Galactic, the self-proclaimed "world’s first commercial spaceline"; since 2004 more than 700 people have forked over at least $200,000 for a ticket on the two-hour flight. Many of these “future astronauts” are celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Justin Bieber and Tom Hanks and Brangelina. (The Winklevoss twins bought their pair using Bitcoin.)
This is what they’ve paid for: WhiteKnightTwo, the Galactic mothership, will fly to 50,000 feet with SpaceShipTwo strapped to its underbelly. SpaceshipTwo and the six ticket holders seated inside will then be released from the airplane and rocket at up to 2,500 mph to sub-orbit some 70 miles high where they will be weightless for a few minutes before gliding back down to Earth and sipping champagne in the Astronaut Lounge and slapping high fives the way only people who have been to space can slap high fives. By 2012, 3,000 tourists were supposed to have made this trip, a goal not reached in part because of problems with rocket development, including a 2007 fatal explosion at test facilities in Mojave, Calif. There have been a number of the kinds of technological delays that one might expect from a fledgling industry, but nearly every year Galactic promises to begin operations anyway. The last nine years of promises without a spaceflight recently culminated in Branson biographer Tom Bower calling the billionaire Virgin mogul an overvalued and “aging sun lizard” whose Galactic company is a total sham.
But the untold story is one about New Mexico and its taxpayers, the people who paid for and built Spaceport America. The saga of their decade-old quarter-billion-dollar gamble on the aging sun lizard’s quest to dominate the commercial space industry often gets overshadowed in favor of playing up the diminished, yet quintessentially American dream of space travel. But whether the dream will be realized or whither or crash and burn, it will happen here in New Mexico, down the road from a town called Truth or Consequences.
There’s an ashtray for every barstool, and the pool table is right in the doorway, and beyond that there’s lots of room for two-stepping or staggering. I’m in Truth or Consequences at the Pine Knot Saloon on an uncharacteristically frigid New Mexico day in late November. On my drive in, the local radio had bemoaned Virgin Galactic failing to begin operations from Spaceport America in 2013. Richard Branson would not, they said, rocket to the edge of space with his kids on Christmas as he had hoped. Galactic would not be ready to fly for another year. Nobody at the Pine Knot seems too bothered by the news. There’s a man lying on a bench beside a telephone booth, napping before his night shift. Three guys slowly orbit a game of pool. Everything in the saloon is pine and covered in a little bit of sweat from joy and a little bit of sweat from toil, and there’s that thick bar air from years of liquor-swelled dreams that don’t quite break but just get stagnant and hang around.
The Pine Knot is the only bar in Truth or Consequences, a town with a population of about 6,400 and an annual median income south of $22,000. The largest employers are Wal-Mart and the public schools. Half the storefronts in the historic downtown are shuttered. Main Street stays pretty empty except for an Art Hop one night a month, when you can buy any kind of turquoise jewelry or Navajo rug or get your tarot read by Christopher the Bohemian Vagabond. The real treasure of downtown is its spas, which are fueled by countless natural hot springs. The name of this town was, in fact, Hot Springs until Ralph Edwards held a contest in 1950 that required the winner to rename itself after his popular radio show, Truth or Consequences. Though a handful of citizens moved out in protest, the name stuck. Now, 60 years later, their identity is on the brink of another unlikely and controversial makeover.
I’m hanging around the Pine Knot waiting to get a good look at Spaceport America. I’m sort of obsessed with it because I lived most of my life just on the other side of the mountains in a town called Alamogordo. I grew up gazing at these New Mexico skies. When I attended the 2007 XPRIZE Cup held near Alamogordo I stood next to a mock-up of a Galactic spaceship and told a local news crew that I aimed to be the first-ever poet in space. The poetry thing hasn’t worked out, but here I am still wondering if I’ll ever be able to wake up one morning in my own bed and then spend the afternoon weightless. But tonight I’m stuck at the bar because the one road leading out to the spaceport is down to one lane and that one lane is frozen over.
Even though I’ve visited Spaceport America once before, my experience of it wasn’t matching the hype. New Mexico Tourism Secretary Monique Jacobson had told me, “It can become an iconic destination like the Sydney Opera House or the Statue of Liberty.” Christine Anderson, executive director of New Mexico Spaceport Authority, also likened the building to the Sydney Opera House and told me it is an “iconic jewel in the desert.” Richard Branson (whose representatives at Galactic declined interview requests for this story) said at a 2011 dedication ceremony, “It could be one of the Seven Wonders.” I want to look at it again the way any of us want to look the future in the eye, to know for sure whether Spaceport America represents a paradigm shift for human travel or a boondoggle for one of the poorest states in the nation or a carnival fad for the 1 percent or a cathedral for a new kind of space-age spirituality.
When I ask the guys at the pool table if this is, in fact, the closest bar to the spaceport, they respond with an incredulous “Huh?” They’re aware of the spaceport’s existence, but they don’t know why I’d care to ask about it because, as they say again and again, not much is going on out there. Nobody’s flying to space.
Or, almost nobody. Bonnie, who calls herself a "sometimes employee" of the bar, smokes and smokes and tells me all about the “ashes of dead people that get launched into space over there.”
“That old guy from Star Trek and some astronauts,” she says. “They pay a bunch of money to just shoot their ashes in the air. Into space! And so we have to just … What? ... Breathe them in?”
In the absence of Galactic operations, the only passengers who have lifted off from Spaceport America are the cremated remains of people whose families have paid UP Aerospace to launch their dead loved ones on a final joyride.
UP Aerospace is one of a few small commercial space startups that have been operating at Spaceport America over the last eight years. Together those startups have conducted 20 launches. But these have been relatively small rockets at a vertical launchpad secondary to the prized Virgin Galactic terminal, and they create a minuscule fraction of the revenue needed to operate the spaceport. UP Aerospace’s first operation, the first launch from Spaceport America in 2006, malfunctioned well before it got suborbital, crashed, and spilled the ashes of a veterinarian in the desert. Celestis is the company handling sales of space burials for clients like James Doohan (“that old guy from Star Trek”) and Gordon Cooper (the last of America’s Right Stuff astronauts to orbit Earth in Project Mercury). About its burials the company says, “Celestis missions are environmentally friendly in that no cremated remains are released into space.”
Bonnie assures me, though, that some of those ashes from Spaceport America’s first “tourist” are still scattered out there in the desert.
Out there in the desert means, specifically, 18,000 acres in the middle of the Jornada del Muerto, a stretch of mostly barren land between the sharp San Andres Mountains and the rolling Cabello Mountains that got its name from having killed so many Spanish travelers in the 17th century. Despite now being home to The World’s First Purpose-Built Commercial Spaceport, that area is still pretty remote and difficult to access. First, you have to get to Truth or Consequences. (A road connecting the spaceport to the larger southern city of Las Cruces is still incomplete.) Then you have to take a nearly hour-long bus ride along the one paved road that is sometimes down to that one lane. You could make the drive in your own vehicle but you’ll be turned away at the gates by a security guard sitting in a shack with black plastic bags on the windows — only official vehicles allowed. And anyway, you should leave the driving on this road to the professionals or the seasoned locals. Besides having steep drop-offs and winding wildly like all canyon roads, this one is infamous for flash floods, and last year one of them took the life of an Arizona worker on his drive home from tiling the dome roof of the Spaceport Operations Center.
I first took a bus to the spaceport in the summer of 2013, four years after construction on the main terminal began and two years after the lion’s share was complete. Virgin Galactic had finally begun paying its $1 million-a-year lease to New Mexico in January, but only after insisting on a $7 million upgrade to the still unused runway and the passage of state legislation that limited liability for themselves and their chain of suppliers in the case of an accident. But the real delay was the fact that Galactic was nowhere close to having their rocket motor perfected. And so the place was built but empty. There were 12,000 feet of pristine runway. There was the futuristic-looking terminal designed by the world-renowned architecture firm Fosters + Partners. It’s a strange building that fades up from the reddish desert in the shape of a horseshoe, and grows from almost sand-level on the south side into a three-story wall of glass that curves around the face of building. That spherical glass wall looks north over the runway like the cornea of a giant eye blinking open out of the desert after about a billion years of sleep.
Back in October 2011, Branson had rappelled from the roof of the terminal with his kids and a team of similarly suspended ballet dancers and declared Spaceport America open for business. He christened the terminal The Gateway to Space and showered it with champagne. But two years later, when my tour group visited in the summer of 2013, the champagne was all dried up. The Gateway to Space was an amazing thing to encounter in the midst of all that open range, but the facility had the eerie sense of one of the many ghost towns that you can find within miles in any direction, leftover from the New Mexico mining boom of the late 1800s. The building was immaculate on the outside but the guts of it were hollow, unfinished — like the façade of a movie set. The only people there were three firefighters who stayed busy washing their massive F-550 truck that was already so shiny from lack of use I wondered if they weren’t actually trying to scuff it up to give the monster a bit of character.
On the runway there were some skid marks, suggesting that Virgin Galactic had begun moving its operation from the test facilities at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California to its purpose-built home in the New Mexico desert. But the burned rubber, a security guard said, was from Will Smith’s private jet. The Fresh Prince had been there, just a few weeks earlier, shooting promotional photos for the doomed After Earth.
“We planned rocket races. Like NASCAR. But with rocket planes.”
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson mentions this offhand over the phone from his office in Santa Fe. He was governor from 2003–2011 with a brief 2008 presidential run sandwiched between the two terms. Today he’s just back from charity work in South Africa. I’m sitting on the ceramic tile floor of my adobe room at the Pink Pelican Motel in Truth or Consequences, killing time, still waiting for that November ice to melt off the lane leading to the spaceport.
The Rocket Racing League, though it sounds cartoonishly implausible, is an actual business that had hoped to operate at Spaceport America, but it ran into financial trouble and failed to build any kind of worthwhile fan base after its single exhibition at the Tulsa International Airport in 2010. Despite these kinds of burnouts, it’s hard not to feel absolutely confident about the future of the spaceport when talking to the guy still referred to by his entourage as the Gov. He’s reflective now that he’s not actively campaigning, a slow talker not because the words take time to formulate but because he wants to make sure they have time to settle in. We talk about his dreams of playing pro baseball and his backup dreams of being an astronaut. We talk about our years of gazing up at the New Mexico skies. More than once he says, “I consider the spaceport my legacy accomplishment.”
“I liked the idea of New Mexico and space. I thought a spaceport fit in.” The Gov says this like it was a decision he made on the fly, as nonchalant as a kid’s backup dream of being an astronaut. Rick Homans incubated the spaceport project as secretary of economic development in order to entice Virgin Galactic to the state. But even he confirms the gut decision. After a 15-minute presentation in 2004 about Galactic and a spaceport, the Gov simply looked at Homans and said, “Don’t screw it up, Dickey. Get out.”
“And from that moment on he never once wavered in his support for the project,” Homans says. “I have huge admiration for him as a political figure, to make a decision like that and then stick with it.” But that confidence must have stemmed in part from the guarantee that New Mexico would be the exclusive home of Virgin Galactic. Branson’s own story of that partnership, which he recently told to a crowd of businesspeople in the empty hangar of The Gateway to Space, is epic: “The then-governor [Richardson] said to me, ‘If you build me a spaceship, I’ll build you a spaceport.’ And I replied, ‘Well, I guess if you’ll build me a spaceport, then I’m gonna build you a spaceship.’ And then we shook hands.” Nine years later the ship Branson built hasn’t yet made it to space. But New Mexico has a spaceport.
The idea existed long before the Richardson administration. In June of 1963, just a month after the final orbital flight of NASA’s Mercury program, New Mexico Gov. Jack Campbell sent a letter to President John F. Kennedy that reads, “We in New Mexico believe the first inland aerospace port should be based here and earnestly solicit your acceptance of our views.”
By 1979 there actually was a spaceport of sorts operating in New Mexico. The White Sands Space Harbor was created to help NASA pilots train for landings. On March 30, 1982, the Space Shuttle Columbia landed there. The Space Harbor is a mere 50 miles east of Spaceport America, but its 35,000 feet of shuttle-ready runways have not been operational since NASA ended the shuttle program in 2011. And that brings the total amount of spacecraft runway in southern New Mexico not actively being used for space travel to almost 9 miles.
In the late '90s, the current site of Spaceport America was in the running to become the home of the Venture Star, a reusable spaceplane NASA contracted Lockheed Martin to build as a replacement for the space shuttle. But when that program was canceled in 2001, the plans for a Southwest Regional Spaceport languished until Virgin Galactic flew into town and the project got rebranded: Spaceport America.
The difference between these other spaceport projects and the one that finally materialized was Galactic’s commitment to the state and its primary focus not on scientific breakthrough or exploration, but the unprecedented and undeniably sexy industry of space tourism. “I did a lot in the area of new job-creating initiatives, and I wanted to bring international prestige to the state,” Richardson says. “Space tourism could do that.”
The Gov was famous for getting behind big-eyed projects. Some, like the $300,000 he spent to convince the Mexican government to co-sponsor an NFL franchise in the region, never panned out. Others, like tax incentives to lure filmmakers to the state, have been incredibly successful. He says more than 135 films have been produced in the state because of those incentives — everything from Transformers to The Lone Ranger. The producers of Breaking Bad cite those tax incentives as the primary reason they chose to base their production in New Mexico rather than California and, as a result, an entire cottage industry of tourism has sprung up around the fame brought to Albuquerque by Heisenberg and his blue meth.
But many in New Mexico fear space tourism has already proven to be a flop leftover from the Richardson administration. One of the more outspoken critics of Spaceport America is Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, a conservative think tank in New Mexico. “Politicians have these big dreams and frequently they sell people and give this rosy picture of, Oh yeah, this is how we’ll fix the poor economy," he tells me. "In reality space tourism is far more speculative and dubious than anyone actually knows. It’s like building an airport before the Wright Brothers had their first flight. That’s what New Mexico did.”
Bobby Allen, a county commissioner in Truth or Consequences, recently spoke to the Santa Fe New Mexican about the lack of return on his county’s investment: “Over a period of 10 years, we’ve been promised a lot of stuff. To date, we have seen none of it, not for the little people here in town.”
The “stuff” they’ve been promised dates back to Rick Homans’ 15-minute pitch in 2004. Homans tells me the original vision was for New Mexico to be the center of not just space tourism, but the whole commercial space industry. “You create research hubs that are focused on creating those technologies," he says. "You become an innovation center. You have to do those things that are important and public to lay claim to being the epicenter of a new industry. That was our vision.”
But any informed observers will say the Mojave Air and Space Port in California is where all the breakthroughs are percolating. That facility recently released a promotional video calling itself “The Modern-Day Kitty Hawk,” and it may very well be right. Including Virgin Galactic, there are 17 commercial space companies using 19 rocket launch sites at Mojave. “It is the center of aerospace entrepreneurial development," says Galactic CEO George Whitesides. "There is nowhere else where you can design, build, install, and test space equipment all in the same place. Mojave is the only place in the world.” While Galactic still plans to fly its tourists from Spaceport America, the dream of New Mexico becoming the “epicenter of a new industry” never materialized. One ray of hope is that Elon Musk’s powerhouse rocket company, SpaceX, recently signed a three-year lease with Spaceport America for tests of its Falcon 9R, a vehicle designed not for tourism but for lucrative NASA work carrying payload and eventually astronauts to the International Space Station. SpaceX continues buying up cheap land near Brownsville, Texas, to build its own spaceport in a poor rural area, so it may not be in New Mexico for long.
And so there have been almost none of the thousands of high-quality jobs Spaceport America was supposed to create over the last decade. Galactic job offerings announced via Twitter in the final months of 2013 were for nearly 50 positions to be based in Mojave, ranging from jobs like systems engineering lead to hydraulics systems engineer to propulsion test manager. In that same period only nine jobs to be based at Spaceport America were advertised, and those jobs were not lucrative engineering gigs but decidedly more menial positions like warehouse manager and diesel technician and manager of maintenance. In the first months of 2014, some seemingly more lucrative jobs have been announced for New Mexico, like hybrid engineer and mission engineer and astronaut instructor. But for every one job based at the New Mexico spaceport, there are still another five announced for Mojave.
In the absence of attracting a significant portion of the burgeoning commercial space industry, Spaceport America has been forced more and more to rely on the promise of its anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic, and that company’s most immediate goal of providing an “unforgettable adventure” and “luxury life experience” for its ticket holders. But if the murmurings of boondoggle slowly arose over a decade as none of the high-quality jobs materialized to transform the economy, they have reached a crescendo as some New Mexicans realize that after all this time it may only be the 1 percenters who benefit from the state’s investment.
“What you have is one of the poorest states in the country and the taxpayers in this state subsidizing the business of a billionaire for the benefit of multimillionaires,” says Gessing.
Whitesides, the current Virgin Galactic CEO, often fields these kinds of questions. This one was fired at him in November at an Association of Science Writers meeting in Gainesville, Fla.: “With all the problems on Earth, why are we creating amusement park rides in space for rich people?” Whitesides responded by pointing out that Galactic is a privately funded company. “You have a right to talk about your tax dollars,” he said. “But these aren’t your tax dollars.” Galactic is owned in part by Branson and in part by Aabar Investments, a company controlled by the government of Abu Dhabi. But Spaceport America is, of course, owned by New Mexico and its taxpayers.
Galactic’s response to questions about the greater relevance of its venture, beyond just good times for rich folks, increasingly plays up the possibility of intercontinental point-to-point travel via sub-orbital spaceship. It says these early space tourism jaunts are a kind of stopgap on the way to revolutionizing world travel. The idea is that you endured rich pricks lugging around brick cell phones in the '80s and '90s so you could have an iPhone in your pocket today. And now you should allow the rich their space tourism so that tomorrow (maybe 15 or 20 years by Galactic’s estimate) you can travel across the world from London to Sydney in two hours or from Dubai to Vancouver in an hour and a half.
Superfast intercontinental travel seems to have been in the Galactic mind since the very beginning. As early as an October 2003 interview with Charlie Rose, you can hear Branson bemoaning the retirement of the Concorde supersonic airplanes and the inability of his Virgin Atlantic airline to purchase and continue operating those planes. Between the lines you see him formulating some kind of plan to replace the Concorde. Mostly he lashes out at his airline nemesis, British Airways, and scolds the British government for completely subsidizing the building of the Concorde airplanes without ensuring that it would benefit all the people of Britain: “As far as the British public is concerned, we, the British public, paid for the Concorde and not British Airways.”
Now the tables have turned and the members of New Mexico's public are the ones with their money on the line for Branson. I asked Mark Butler, the Virgin Galactic manager in charge of operations at Spaceport America, if the company would continue to use the New Mexico spaceport should its business model shift toward intercontinental travel. He responded by email, “It is too early to say.”
That is undoubtedly true. But as Gessing points out, it is hard to imagine international travelers ever heading out to the remote Jornada del Muerto desert before rocketing off to Paris for dinner. And anyway, Galactic’s SpaceshipTwo doesn’t rocket off until 50,000 feet. Until then it’s strapped to WhiteKnightTwo, which operates much like any other airplane. Many runways at many airports in the world, then, could conceivably be retrofitted for the flights.
Even if Galactic's business model does not shift toward intercontinental travel anytime soon, it's currently in the process of building a spaceport in Abu Dhabi, this time with its own money and the money of the Abu Dhabi-controlled company that owns almost half of Virgin Galactic. Galactic is tight-lipped about the project, and despite repeated questions, I could get no one in the company to confirm anything other than the fact that the project was underway and it is expected to be completed in the next few years. But presumably, the oil-rich Galactic investors in Abu Dhabi will spare no expense to create a luxury life experience for their ticket holders that far surpasses anything the New Mexico taxpayers can afford. And this brings up all sorts of visions of Spaceport America 10 or 15 years down the line, the creosote and cacti taking over again, just as abandoned as it was when I first visited.
There is one group of people who can be the saviors of Spaceport America, if and when they show up. Christine Anderson, the current director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, calls them by this oxymoronic name: Terrestrial Space Tourists. She tells me the hope is to have a full 50% of spaceport revenue come from these old-fashioned tourists, not the few who can afford a ticket on SpaceShipTwo, but the many people like you and me who are expected to show up and gawk without ever leaving the Earth.
“I think any commercial spaceport that wants to be self-sufficient needs to have a second source of revenue coming in," she says. "In our case, it is tourism. For Mojave [Air and Space Port], it is windmills. Just like most airports do not get all their money from airplane traffic; they get it from concessions.”
There is plenty of precedent for this. During the moonshot, a launch from Cape Canaveral, like that of the Saturn V rocket and Apollo 11 shuttle on July 16, 1969, drew hundreds of thousands of people from all over the country to beaches and bridges and islands for miles in every direction. But that was a free-for-all picnic situation where the pilgrimage had a distinctly patriotic feel and everyone was at least guaranteed the fireworks show of a 36-story behemoth of engineering blasting off with a force equivalent to 1 million pounds of TNT. Spaceport America is isolated and can’t offer such a spectacle. And Galactic’s technology isn’t 1 million pounds of TNT fireworks show — SpaceShipTwo ignites its rocket at 50,000 feet, so any observers on the ground will only be watching WhiteKnightTwo take off horizontally, much like any other plane.
So Christine Anderson has been hunting for a $21 million loan to help make the place more enticing to the much-needed Terrestrial Space Tourists. “Several years ago we had a company called IDEAS from Florida help us plan that whole visitor experience,” she says. “Many of the company employees are former Disney Imagineers. We’ll have a 3D theater on site and we’ll have a restaurant and we’ll have a little observation deck that you can walk out to and watch as the spaceships take off and land.”
Anderson wanted to have all of this ready so that its opening coincided with the first flights of Virgin Galactic, which she hopes will begin later this year and draw about 200,000 people annually. That number of expected Terrestrial Space Tourists has been consistently revised downward over the last decade as the spaceship launch delays have piled up and reality has set in. Also likely to cut into this number is the fact that for the time being, none of this visitor experience will actually be built; Anderson recently shelved the ambitious plans in order to save money in the wake of increasing boondoggle talk. For the foreseeable future, the relatively small public gallery of The Gateway to Space will be the only area for visitors who have not paid for a ticket.
Despite New Mexico being at the end of a decade-long limb for Galactic, the company has no specific plans to help with the Terrestrial Space Tourism effort in New Mexico. Mark Butler, the Galactic manager at Spaceport America, explains via email, “The primary attraction of this tourism program is expected to be Virgin Galactic operational spaceflights, so that is what our primary contribution will be.” Its focus is largely on that other group, the Rich Space Tourists.
One thing Terrestrial Space Tourists can still look forward to is a welcome center in Truth or Consequences. This building is slated for construction on land the New Mexico Spaceport Authority has already purchased on the outskirts of town, situated conveniently between a Walmart and a Holiday Inn. This is where bus rides to the spaceport will originate. “But we’re also working on the mobile theater,” Anderson says. “You won’t just be sitting on a bus for 45 minutes; you’re going to be in a digital experience learning about space and New Mexico.”
When I’d taken the bus to the spaceport in summer 2013, there was no digital experience. I took notes on my iPad while our tour guide explained to us that we were getting a sneak peek at the future. His own notes were in a bulky three-ring binder — the standard tour guide technology for the last 70 years. Slipped into one of the wrinkled plastic sheaths was an old photocopy of the famous "Earthrise" photo from the 1968 mission of Apollo 8 in which Earth floats in the dark distance of space like a little blue marble swirled all over with white clouds. It’s been called one of the most important photographs ever taken because it showed people on Earth a new global perspective. Nobody ever mentions that a full half of the Earth isn’t visible in the photo, lost in shadow so that the little blue marble appears hacked in half.
When we talk about space tourism, particularly the sub-orbital kind that Virgin Galactic plans to conduct from Spaceport America, we’re talking a lot about that blue marble — the view we can get of ourselves from way up there. And this is how our spaceport out in the Jornada del Muerto begins to take on all sorts of spiritual dimensions.
The Overview Effect is a term coined by Frank White in 1987 to describe the experience of viewing Earth from space and the effect such an experience has on the viewer forever after. David Beaver of The Overview Institute, a group spawned from White’s work, writes this about the view of Earth from space: “Nearly every astronaut has told of changes or reinforcements of attitudes, perspectives and motivations; deep effects on intellectual, emotional and even spiritual levels.”
As Richard Branson says in a November 2009 Virgin Galactic promotional video, “This will be a trip like no other. It will give those that travel with us a unique and life-changing perspective of our planet.” Some version of this claim runs throughout all Branson’s discussions of his space venture, and because of his persistent giddiness and his flowing golden locks that have faded to dirty white, there’s a sort of young Gandalf-ish wizardry about him contributing to the sense that his pitch for space tourism is mixed with more than a little bit of mysticism.
World View, another tourism company that has considered making a home at Spaceport America, plans to give people a taste of the Overview Effect via balloon ride. Its balloons carry a passenger capsule to only a third of the height of Galactic’s spaceships, about 20 miles up, but it claims tourists will see the curvature of the Earth and the twinkle-speckled black of space. The flickering piano and epiphanic strings of its promotional video’s score plays beneath slow-motion renderings and shows that despite its rides not technically getting to space, it's selling the same spiritual experience as Galactic, though its can be had for only $75,000. Another of these balloon “space” tourism companies based in Spain even claims that its passenger experience may be superior to Galactic’s because its space capsule provides room for passengers to meditate.
Brian Binnie is one of the few who have actually experienced what Virgin Galactic is selling. In 2004 he piloted to an altitude of 69.6 miles the X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne that became the prototype for Virgin Galactic’s current vehicle, SpaceShipTwo. Binnie describes Galactic’s passenger experience this way:
“Even though you’re just, as a passenger, sitting there, you are fully engaged. Your senses are pegged. There’s a lot of vibration. There’s a lot of noise. There’s a lot of G-forces on your body. For a minute and a half you’re saturated by that. But at rocket motor shutdown it’s as though somebody throws a switch and just like that the noise and the vibrations, the shaking, the shuttering, the shrieking and the shrilling of that rocket motor all disappears. And right with it you become weightless. And weightlessness means all the tension that was there is gone. ... you can drift to the nearest window and now you have this body sensation coupled in with that view. It’s otherworldly.”
David Beaver is wary of these selling points. “It appears that the Overview Effect has either become marginalized by some of the more esoteric of the astronauts’ experience, or minimized as simply thrilling or aesthetic experiences.” Beaver, it seems, wants the view to be about social and political change, which he figures can’t happen if it’s sold as either religion or entertainment or some amoral combination of the two.
He does say that ultimately we should have faith in Virgin Galactic and other commercial space companies because, like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, he believes the likelihood that we’re destroying our home planet absolutely demands that we become an interplanetary species sooner rather than later.
Perhaps most telling was a story Beaver recounted about his buddy Frank White, the original champion of the Overview Effect, who recently flew to New York to meet with Branson. When Frank asked why Galactic never talks specifically about the Overview Effect, Branson responded, “I didn’t want to encroach on your brand.” And Frank laughed and told Branson there was no way something so profound as the cosmic view of Earth should ever be reduced to such a thing. But the strategy of Galactic has largely been to use the transformative and spiritual aspects of space travel in service of its brand.
"Galactic will put the Virgin brand on the American map in a way money can't buy," former CEO Will Whitehorn told Wired in 2005. "Every time someone mentions space travel, they'll mention Virgin."
Galactic has also used the ingenious strategy of getting celebrities to publicize the brand by purchasing a ticket. Add to that announcements like Lady Gaga being scheduled to perform on a Galactic flight or a sweeping deal with NBC that will include a flagship reality show called Space Race and live coverage of the inaugural flight across all NBCUniversal networks that aims to rival Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. All of this shows how Galactic can maybe afford delays — they give them more time to build an enormous brand in an unprecedented market before ever delivering a product.
The powerhouse of that brand is what’s got many in New Mexico excited to see the flights start, to see the money and the prestige come rolling in. But it’s got just as many concerned the money and prestige, if it ever shows up, isn’t going to just roll into small southern New Mexico towns so much as steamroll through them.
“I’m leaving town soon, but by god, I’m still the mayor for a few days.”
I meet with John Mulcahy in November during his last days in office as mayor of Truth or Consequences, though he doesn’t seem to have an actual office, so we meet in a multipurpose room attached to the civic center. There’s a leak in the roof and a bucket placed pretty close to under the leak and a maintenance man occasionally popping in to size up the rise of water. The good news: The ice is finally melting and the road to the spaceport is likely to be passable. The bad news: This is not the only leak in town.
Mulcahy talks mostly about the challenges he’s faced trying to ease the town toward preparing for the tourist boom promised by the spaceport. The problems are big enough that they’ve contributed to him stepping down as mayor in favor of heading up economic development in Roswell, where there’s already an entrenched cosmic brand. The gist of the problems in Truth or Consequences, he says, is that so much of the town is in disrepair and there’s not much money.
“We’re trying real hard to fix our blight,” Mulcahy says. “We’re painting. Fixing roads. And I don’t mean spend a bunch of money. I mean get out and clean up your yard. Put the roof back on. Put the door on the front door. It’s a poor community.” Because of the cold, Mulcahy wore his cowhide work gloves to our meeting; he now twists them into and out of knots as he talks to me. “We’ve seen this coming,” he says. “It didn’t sneak up on us."
Mulcahy says 60% of the town is on a fixed income from Social Security or welfare. Most all of the students at public schools are on a free lunch program. Because the town is largely populated by senior citizens, the Senior Meal Program at the civic center is one of the largest gatherings on any given day. While nearby Elephant Butte Lake brings in around 900,000 visitors a year, the campers and fishermen aren’t exactly rolling in with big money.
When I ask Christine Anderson how the New Mexico Spaceport Authority is working to help with economic development in Truth or Consequences, she says, “We meet with all the communities. But again, it’s their job, not ours. We share our thoughts with them and our projections with them. But ultimately its up to them.” The concern, as Mulcahy puts it, is that “a lot of players with very deep pockets” will roll into the community and transform the place into something unrecognizable, into some gold-plated playground that overshadows their unique culture.
The Virgin Galactic experience is undoubtedly, for the astronauts who purchase the tickets, a luxury experience. They will want luxury accommodations. Michael Blum, a Galactic ticket holder and former PayPal executive, recently said to a crowd in Las Cruces, “I love the Hotel Encanto, but it’s not up to the international standard that these people [Galactic astronauts and their entourages] are accustomed to.”
The Hotel Encanto is likely the swankiest hotel in all of southern New Mexico. So Blum’s remarks, while intended to urge locals toward luxury development, were also an indictment of their current way of life. For Mayor Mulcahy they were a warning sign about the dangers of deep pockets erasing the unique identity of Truth or Consequences. Even my room at the Pink Pelican Motel might not survive. It doesn’t meet Blum’s “international standard” of luxury. It's too pink. Too crumbling adobe.
Across the street from my motel is its sister business, the Pelican Spa, one of 10 locally owned hot-spring spas in town. When I’d soaked in one, there was a nearby washing machine rumbling and a family of five laughing in the bath next door. Blum might not like it, but it seemed pretty good to me. I could dip my head under the steaming water and the rumbling of the washing machine felt something like a rocket ride, and then when I surfaced all the nearby laughter brought me back to Earth.
The hot springs flow from beneath the town at over 2 million gallons a day, pumped into baths all over downtown and even to the backyards of some houses. The geothermal waters come up at over 100 degrees, spiked by the earth with minerals including gold and silver and mercury, a brew championed for centuries by the locals as having vast healing properties. In the first half of the 20th century, Hot Springs, N.M., was a major destination for those seeking therapeutic experience, physical and spiritual, boasting as many as 50 medicinal spas for the old body-and-soul soak.
So Mulcahy’s call to “step up and say we’re gonna manage this deal” is as much about seizing economic opportunity as it is about preserving the culture that, even without the spaceport, makes the place unique. It’s a mysticism that dates all the way back to early Native American tribes who used the hot springs and surrounding area as sacred ground — neutral in war and prized for healing battle wounds and prime for talks of peace. It’s a mysticism that seems born to cradle, many centuries later, the launching point for that more spiritual notion of the Overview Effect where the blue marble becomes the only way we see ourselves, all calm and in it together.
“When we talk to people about why they want to spend the money to go up to space, we hear a lot about that view when they look back at Earth. That it is weirdly an incredibly grounding experience,” says New Mexico Tourism Secretary Monique Jacobson. “We think that’s actually what a trip to New Mexico can do for people, even if you’re not able to go to space and look down at Earth, coming here can really ground you. The culture and adventures here are so unique — how you feel when you leave and how they’re truly adventures that feed your soul.”
As part of Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration for the last three years, Jacobson has worked aggressively to rebrand the state. Her campaign is called “New Mexico True,” and the slogan she repeats several times as we talk is “adventure steeped in culture.” Indeed, much of the tourism media for New Mexico is about recreational activities alongside Native American and Hispanic culture. The True brand largely ignores the presence of the aerospace industry, suggesting maybe that aerospace is not True to New Mexico. But Jacobson thinks this can change and says she does have plans to create a Space Trail that will originate at Spaceport America and direct Terrestrial Space Tourists to related sites around the state via touchscreen kiosks.
Currently the New Mexico tourism website features nothing about Spaceport America, though there are features devoted to film locations and ghost towns and the state’s penchant for green chili cheeseburgers. The True brand is taking its time going Galactic, either because it (like everyone else) is waiting for Galactic’s first flight or because current Gov. Martinez was a bit annoyed at inheriting the old Gov’s troubled “legacy” project or because it is mindful of not letting Galactic overshadow traditional New Mexico culture. That last bit is likely the case and so then there’s a kind of tussle around Spaceport America, a battle to be the defining brand.
Even the New Mexico Spaceport Authority has gotten into the branding game in the last year, sporting a brand-new logo that looks like the Star Trek insignia dipped in the Stars and Stripes and tipped on its side. The logo is on T-shirts and hats and it looms large in the tiny Operations Center adjacent to The Gateway to Space. All three of these brands, Galactic and Spaceport America and New Mexico True, need to co-exist in order for the spaceport to succeed. The Overview Effect (the real potential for political and social change), because it is not a brand, may get lost in all that marketing. And anyway, at this point Galactic’s brand undeniably dominates. The spaceport is not just any mythological eyeball rising out of the desert. The Gateway to Space, when all lit up, is designed to resemble the Galactic logo: a blue iris modeled after Richard Branson’s own eye. From a descending SpaceShipTwo, after you’ve seen the holy curve of the Earth, you’ll get to glide quietly down into the big eye of a billionaire.
The ice finally melts off the road and runs into the dam. The bus rumbles through the canyon and over a few cattle guards, and the water in Elephant Butte Lake is rising for the first time in years. After soaking at the Pink Pelican and drinking at the Pine Knot, I’m finally headed to the spaceport again. As we steer around stray cattle in the road, Spaceport America peeks out of the red desert on the horizon. When we get close enough, it finally blinks open and the three stories of glass gleam in the sun so I have to squint when looking directly at it.
I wonder what it might be like to sit inside, just before rocketing to space. I think of Pat Hynes, director of the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium and a Galactic ticket holder, who told me of sitting in the third floor of the The Gateway to Space that will become the Astronaut Lounge, complete with a champagne bar. She was there one afternoon meeting with the U.K. spaceport delegation when everyone stopped to watch as a thunderstorm rolled into the valley, the whole of the storm visible because of the open desert horizon and the massively panoramic windows looking north over the runway. That view from inside the Astronaut Lounge must be great, a stark precursor to what they will see from above.
But most of us, the Terrestrial Space Tourists, will be gazing at the building as I am, from the outside. We will get the same panorama of New Mexico landscape, but it will be a reflection on the windows’ exteriors, the curvature of those three stories of glass, like a sphere, throwing the mirrored image of the desert at us. That perspective is strange, the opposite of the Overview Effect and kind of sidelong, so the world is not growing smaller and more whole in the distance but is magnified all around you and your own reflection is enveloped in it, a kind fish-eye perspective that forces you to see yourself as very tiny in the emptiness it reflects. It really is beautiful, that perspective. But also, because of that same curvature and the way it warps your body’s reflection, it’s more than a little bit like a giant fun-house mirror.