Per Asper Ad Astra – Rural Southwest Is Slowly Becoming a Destination for Commercial Spacetravel
On the morning of August 10th, 2023, residents of Elephant Butte, New Mexico (population 1,427), stood in their yards, eyes trained on the sky. They were rewarded with the sights—and sounds—of a spaceplane being launched into sub-orbital space.
“We could hear the rocket ignite—it was right overhead—and you could see the contrail, at first going horizontally and then straight up in the air,” said Kim Skinner, mayor pro tempore of Elephant Butte, in an interview with the Daily Yonder.
The launch was Virgin Galactic’s second commercial flight, known as ‘Galactic 02’, which carried three private passengers as well as the flight crew 55 miles above the earth to the boundaries of space.
Galactic 02 launched from Spaceport America, “the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport” according to its website. Located on 18,000 acres of land adjacent to the White Sands Missile Range, the Spaceport is 26 miles from the city of Truth or Consequences (population 6,062), the county seat of Sierra County, and around 25 miles from Elephant Butte.
Low population density is one of the prerequisites for a usable, operational launch site, according to Charles Hurley, the public information officer for Spaceport America. Jeff Bezos’ space tourism company Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX also have launch sites at similarly remote locations.
Following the success of two flights in the summer of 2023, Virgin Galactic announced a schedule of regular monthly commercial spaceflights launching from Spaceport America.
For residents of Sierra County, this announcement fulfills a promise decades in the making, said Bruce Swingle, former city manager of Truth or Consequences, and former county manager for Sierra County.
“I think [the launch] was really a turning point for the community,” Swingle told the Daily Yonder.
The New Mexico state legislature began contemplating plans for a commercial spaceport in the 1980s, though the proposal was not funded until 2005. The $212 million project was paid for primarily by the taxpayers of Sierra County, where the Spaceport is located, and neighboring Doña Ana County. Both counties continue to pay a gross receipts tax to fund the Spaceport, a quarter of which is dedicated to local science, technology, engineering, and math education.
At its core, the Spaceport was “designed to spur economic development,” said Spaceport America Executive Director Scott McLaughlin in a press release.
A new report by the Arrowhead Center at New Mexico State University shows that the project has been effective. In 2022, Spaceport America generated nearly $63 million of economic impact in Sierra County, and over $58 million in Doña Ana County. This includes the creation of hundreds of jobs, construction at the spaceport, and tourism.
Last year, over 2,500 visitors toured the Spaceport through Final Frontier Tours, the official tour operator and merchandiser for the Spaceport. The annual Spaceport America Cup, which is an international rocket-building competition for college students, also brings thousands of visitors each year, according to Hurley. And as Virgin Galactic gears up its operations, a steady stream of space tourists and their entourages are expected to flock to New Mexico.
“We’re receiving much more money in return than what we’re paying in gross receipts tax to the Spaceport,” said Swingle. “And in the long term, the Spaceport will continue to grow. I think that what we’re at the Spaceport today is negligible compared to what it’s going to look like in the foreseeable future.”
Much-Needed Economic Boost
This growing source of economic development is welcome in Sierra County, which is one of the poorest in New Mexico. Over a quarter of its residents are living in poverty, according to the US Census Bureau.
And while Virgin Galactic reaches for the stars, Sierra County struggles to provide critical services on the ground. Truth or Consequences, the largest city in the county, has had to temporarily shut down schools and businesses on multiple occasions due to a failing water system that leaks over 40% of the desert town’s potable water into the ground.
For the past decade, tickets for a Virgin Galactic spaceflight cost between $200,000-250,000. Now, tickets go for $450,000 apiece. Space tourists in search of a luxury experience in Sierra County can stay at the Armendaris Ranch, owned by media mogul Ted Turner, for $3500 a night, before taxes and fees.
The irony of this is not lost on Kim Skinner, mayor pro tempore of Elephant Butte. “We have all sorts of things going in Sierra County, from water pipes so broken that you lose 43% of the water pumped, to high-end places like the Armenadaris where you can stay for nearly $4,000 a night,” she said. “It’s from one extreme to the other.”
Though there is also a range of less exclusive options in Truth or Consequences, many tourists end up opting for Las Cruces’ Encanto Hotel, which partners with the Spaceport.
According to the economic impact study, the Spaceport generated over 9,000 visitor-days (days visitors spent in the area) in 2022. But 75% of those visitor-days were spent in Doña Ana County, which is home to Las Cruces, New Mexico’s second-largest city.
“Tourists want to go where the money is, and that’s Las Cruces,” said Susan Curry, the office manager for the Sierra County Chamber of Commerce.
Skinner is also the chairperson of the Sierra County Government Recreation and Tourism Board. She said that Sierra County may not be the right destination for everyone, but that they still hope to attract more Spaceport visitors who are interested in the abundant natural resources the county has to offer. And a nearly 20% increase in the county’s annual lodgers tax revenue shows that the strategy is working.
“We don’t have all the shopping; we don’t have all the bells and whistles,” Skinner said. “But if you’re a person who would really like to hike or bike, or RV up in the mountains, this is the place for you.”
Building for the Future
Although Sierra County businesses hope to continue to grow local tourism, other types of economic development stemming from the Spaceport have proven even more fruitful, according to former Sierra County manager Bruce Swingle.
He cites unprecedented private investment in the community, and new public-private partnerships designed to address local problems, from a housing shortage to poor internet connectivity.
“We are catching up with the rest of the world with our infrastructure, our broadband, our utilities, our roads,” Swingle said. “And it’s not just growth, it’s smart growth.”
Swingle hopes these improvements will help the community attract a new generation of professionals, from aerospace workers to hospital staff.
Attracting young people is critical to the future of the community, Skinner said.
“One of the things we’re concerned about is that our kids grow up, go to college, and move away because there are no jobs to keep them here. And you see that in rural communities all over the country,” she said. “So we’re really blessed to have the Spaceport here, doing what it’s trying to do.”
According to Hurley, the Spaceport is just one element of New Mexico’s developing “Space Valley,” stretching from the research complex at Los Alamos down to the aerospace department at the University of Texas at El Paso. Other important space-related sites include Sandia National Laboratories, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, White Sands Missile Range, and the Air Force Research Laboratory.
As New Mexico grows its space-centered economy, Bruce Swingle is adamant that Sierra County will continue to benefit.
“It’s amazing to see the synergy that is going into our community right now,” Swingle said. “And Spaceport is a part of that, Virgin Galactic and private investment are a part of that. It’s just a really good time to be in Sierra County and watch this happen.”
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