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Plan for New Mexico’s spaceport is up the air

UPHAM, N.M. — Billionaire Richard Branson looks at a bleak and featureless expanse of the New Mexico desert and sees the perfect spot on which to build the future — a $198 million launch complex that would blast paying tourists into space.
    Whether enough folks around here share his vision remains to be seen.
    Spaceport America, as sketched out by Branson, would be funded by $198 million in state, local and federal money. The first rocket flights would be in 2009 and would initially be suborbital trips that would offer five minutes of weightlessness at about $200,000 per person. Eventually, the spaceport could offer trips into orbit and beyond.
    But in poor southern New Mexico’s ranching country, some say they have no intention of paying for some rich people’s thrills.
    On Tuesday, residents of Dona Ana County voted on a proposed quarter-cent sales tax increase critical to the project. The tax increase, which would raise a projected $49 million, led by a mere 238 votes out of 17,168 cast, with 541 provisional ballots still to be counted. A final count is expected Thursday.
    ‘‘I do not see any reason that every time I buy a dress for my wife I should have to pay more taxes,’’ grumbled George Gandara, a 63-year-old business owner in Las Cruces, about 60 miles south of the spaceport site.
    Carol Garcia, 52, of Las Cruces, said: ‘‘It’s just a rich man’s dream that he needs us to help pay for. If it’s your dream, build it yourself.’’
    Rick Homans, New Mexico’s economic development director, said he was expecting a wider margin of victory.
    ‘‘On one hand, there is a healthy skepticism and a great deal of caution about the project,’’ he said. ‘‘And on the other hand, there is a lot of optimism for what it could do for the state.’’
    Will Whitehorn, a spokesman for Branson’s Virgin Galactic in London, said Wednesday that the company would not comment until all the ballots had been counted. But Homans said the defeat of the tax increase would probably doom the project.
    ‘‘Realistically, the project would unravel, very likely,’’ he said.
    State leaders, including Democratic presidential hopeful Gov. Bill Richardson, who toured the area last week in a late-hour push for tax, have pinned southern New Mexico’s economic fate on the spaceport. Homans said the project would do no less than mark New Mexico as ‘‘the birthplace of the second space age.’’
    The 27-square-mile site, which would be near White Sands Missile Range, where the U.S. launched its first rocket after World War II, would include a 10,000-foot runway with adjoining terminals and hangars. The big runway would be able to handle the kinds of planes that take spaceships up to 60,000 feet, where they could then be launched. There also would be an area to launch rockets vertically.
    Under the plan, Branson’s Virgin Galactic would move its headquarters from London, along with some 200 employees. The hope is that the project would stimulate manufacturing and research in nearby cities such as Las Cruces and Truth or Consequences.
    ‘‘The premise is that once space becomes accessible, then all sorts of things will happen in space and on the moon, and there’s going to be a whole industry that supports it,’’ Homans said.
    Branson has said he chose the southern New Mexico desert as a launch site because of the weather, the large expanse of open desert and the support of the state.
    ‘‘We’re about to embark on a wonderful adventure. ... We’re going where no one has gone before. There’s no model to follow, nothing to copy,’’ Branson said in 2005.
    While Branson and New Mexico are pushing forward, they are racing against Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and others to make their dreams a reality. Bezos has been quietly buying land and recruiting engineers to create his own spaceport in West Texas. According to his Web site, Bezos successfully launched a small, unmanned craft in a stretch of Texas desert about 120 miles east of El Paso last year.

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