Struggling NM town hopes to get economic boost from space tourists

Truth or Consequences is a small town hoping to get a big lift from Virgin’s space tours into desert sky

Truth or Consequences, N.M., where small-business owners have embraced the nearby Virgin Galactic spaceport.
Zuma Press/Alamy

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M. — When Val Wilkes and her partner, Cydney, bought a run-down motor lodge to refurbish in this small New Mexico town, there was really only one name they felt they could give it: the Rocket Inn.

It captured the state's longtime fascination with aliens, the tests at the U.S. Army's White Sands Missile Range and the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport nearby, from which Virgin Galactic plans to take millionaire astronauts on joyrides to space in coming months.

"I've always loved rockets … We've got the spaceport, we've got White Sands ... and then there's Roswell, so we're appealing to that," said Wilkes, adding that the motel's sign featuring a cartoon-style rocket is already attracting space-related visitors, including the group of rocket scientists who lodged there recently.

Val Wilkes next to a sign she hopes will attract space tourists to her motor lodge.
Tim Gaynor for Al Jazeera America

"Well, where else would we stay?" she said they told her. 

Wilkes and her partner are among a sweep of business owners in this small town of close to 6,000 people who hope that the $212 million investment by New Mexico taxpayers in Spaceport America will bring a much needed lift to the sagging local economy.

Tycoon Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic plans to start taking wealthy astronauts to the edge of space from the high desert facility built with state funds perhaps as early as this year.

Virgin's mother ship, called WhiteKnightTwo, is designed to take off from the 12,000-foot-long "spaceway" at the spaceport, just 30 miles from Truth or Consequences, and spiral upward to a height of 50,000 feet, then release the six-seater SpaceShipTwo, which will hurtle to suborbital space, powered by a rocket. 

So far more than 600 people have paid either $200,000 or $250,000 for the two-hour ride, which includes a few minutes of weightlessness. Branson said in a recent interview the first unmanned test flight would happen "soon" and that he and his children will take the first commercial space flight later this year.

Originally called Hot Springs, the town thrived as a health resort before its treatments fell out of vogue after World War II. In 1950 residents voted to change the name to that of a popular radio quiz show, Truth or Consequences, in the hope of luring visitors back.

Still struggling decades later to entice tourists to its spas, art galleries, stores and cafes, the town’s business community hopes the rich joyriders, their entourages and a stream of tourists from around the world will kick-start a long-overdue revival.

"2014 is going to be the breakthrough year when things start happening and you start noticing the differences," said Hans Townsend, president of the local chamber of commerce

"For the people that have struggled so long, this could be the year when things start go a little easier for them, and some of them have waited for a long time," he added.

Ready for space business

Set in a rugged section of desert along the Jornada del Muerto between the isolated town and the stark ridges of the San Andreas Mountains, Spaceport America is ready to make history. Paying visitors are already heading out to the site, which offers 340 sunny days a year and proximity to the White Sands Missile Range's no-fly zone.

According to official tour operator Follow the Sun, since 2011 several thousand visitors from as far afield as Japan, Norway and Russia have gone on three-hour preview tours of the facility, which occupies an 18,000-acre site flanked by vast ranches, one of them owned by Ted Turner, the founder of CNN.

Visitors on the $59 guided tour get to see for themselves how close to operational the site is. The Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space building — a terminal and "superhangar," with a glass front and rusted steel doors designed by Norman Foster to blend into its Chihuahua Desert surroundings, where the company will house its space fleet — is finally ready for Virgin to fit out. 

The hangar at Spaceport America in 2011.
Matt York/AP

Also on show is the earth-hugging Spaceport Operations Center, a sleek, dome-shaped building that already has a team of emergency responders with fire trucks, ready to react to anything from a crash landing to a brushfire. 

"It's exciting ... It's finally coming real," said Anne Maltese, a nurse practitioner from Las Cruces, N.M., on a recent tour of the facility, as gusting winds bowled tumbleweeds across the concrete spaceway.

In another sign that it is soon to begin flights, Virgin Galactic has reached out to local entrepreneurs to provide a range of services, including catering and laundry, as well as couriers, interpreters, translators and even suppliers of gourmet coffee.

The British-owned company is also calling on businesses to provide indirect services, such as restaurants, hotels, taxis, tours and wellness activities. With restless exaltations typical of Branson, who parlayed a record company into an empire including airlines, financial services and a rail network, suppliers are asked to be problem solvers willing to, as the company put it, "push the limits — because average is boring!"

Local businesses are increasingly confident that Virgin Galactic will succeed in taking passengers to space, creating new opportunities for a struggling corner of New Mexico.

"I think Richard Branson and what he is doing is real," said Mark Bleth, executive director of Space Place, a facility that acts as bridge for startup companies doing business with Spaceport America. Its store also sells a range of themed souvenirs, like T-shirts depicting cartoon cowboys straddling rockets and novelty freeze-dried "space food."

"Those people are going to come here. They are going to shop. They are going to partake in things. There's going to be companies that move in specifically to cater to those people, whether it’s catering companies, restaurants or brand new hotels."

Both skepticism and hope

While residents of Sierra County, which hosts the center, pay a spaceport sales tax, some are doubtful that the area will reap the benefits of their investment in the facility, for which Virgin Galactic pays $1 million in annual rent.

"We should not be building a base of operations for a billionaire. This is commercial spaceflight, and the commercial aspect of it should be handled by the industry," said retiree Ron Fenn. "Mr. Branson has more than enough money to build this facility himself instead of requiring the poor people of this community to build it."

Fenn and other skeptics point out that a visitor center originally envisaged for a site in downtown Truth or Consequences will now be built next to the interstate instead.

Meanwhile, a new southern access road is to be built with allocated funds of $14.5 million to take traffic directly to the facility from locations like Las Cruces and El Paso, Texas, and will not pass through Truth or Consequences.

Some freeze-dried "space food'' that merchants hope will appeal to space tourists.
Tim Gaynor for Al Jazeera America

But others in the town, which locals refer to as T or C, feel that the spaceport and its anchor tenant have brought valuable exposure that will give local businesses a lift, among them Wilkes. 

"Any industry that comes in and has a positive effect on the community increases everyone's business. When the tide goes up, all the boats rise. So if we all work together, we can all do well," said Wilkes, who said that she has met with Virgin staffers in their outreach.

Many others in the town, where business closures are all too frequent, feel the same way, like Cindy Bellelli, who said she "jumped on the bandwagon" to offer space-themed foil-wrapped health-food snacks to tourists. 

"I came up with Galactic Granola Meteors, and before I knew it, I had five or six customers," she said. She is up to seven or eight distributors and is in the process of getting state certified.

Whether the anticipated spaceflights bring prosperity to the town or not, local store owner Kay Thompson says it has already given the community something priceless: hope.

"T or C has had a hard time economy-wise," she said, standing behind the counter of her When Pigs Fly Gourmet Shop. "The big thing is the hope."

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