Two weekends ago, I went to the 2006 X Prize Cup in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and just returned to work today. Since El Paso, Texas is about an hour's drive away from Las Cruces and was cheap and easy to fly into, I made it my center of operations for the weekend. El Paso is an industrial town that dominates the economic life for hundreds of miles around. It was my good fortune that two new spaceports -- Spaceport America 25 miles Southeast of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico and Blue Origin's spaceport 20 miles North of Van Horn, Texas -- were within easy driving distance when I had some time to visit during the margins of the Cup activities.
Truth or Consequences is a hard-luck desert town of 7,000 roughly equidistant from El Paso and Albuquerque, New Mexico. The downtown probably saw its best days in the 1950s and half of the downtown shops are vacant. There appear to be several motels, although the construction of most of them is from a prior age. Truth or Consequences is said to have some hot springs and the town seems to pull in visitors from several tens of miles around. It is probably because of this fact that I was able to find a good steak at a nice (not fancy) sit-down restaurant.
Waiters are sometimes good sources of informal information. My waiter was well-informed about the spaceport that is coming nearby and mentioned UP Aerospace's recent launch failure. He said that most of the local schoolchildren had made the trip down to Las Cruces for the Cup and I noticed that the restaurant's community bulletin board had a small poster for the event. Also, he said that a week before, he was interviewed by a local TV station for his thoughts about the spaceport, a Wal-Mart, and a race track moving into town. All three were markers of economic progress for the town.
Spaceport America will be Southeast of town on the other side of the Elephant Butte Resevoir, next to the White Sands Missile Range. I drove out New Mexico Route 51 to Engle, a crossroads where the modern world ends. Once you drive over the railroad tracks, there is a short line of ranch mailboxes and a sign at the side of the road that says that beyond this point, the roads are not maintained by the state. The roads to the East are plain dirt -- no gravel in sight. There is a paved road South from Engle beside the railroad tracks along which I drove several miles. Apparently, the spaceport will be near a crossroads called Upham, several miles South along that paved road. But to attach the spaceport to a landmark seems to be somewhat arbitrary. There is little in this desert besides the railroad tracks, desert brush, and a very occasional cow. It seems a good place for a spaceport. It has ready railroad access. But the roads are not heavy duty. Route 51 has some 10 ton limit stretches, for instance.
(Looking from NM Route 51 Southeast toward Spaceport America.)
In a very unfortunate bit of history and spaceport place naming, Spaceport America is situated in the Journey of the Dead. Why oh why didn't they name it the Journey to Heaven? Next to the town of Truth or Consequences, the Journey of the Dead brings up lots of uncomfortable thoughts of impending mortality!
(Spaceport America at the Journey of the Dead)
Traveling through this area, it struck me how much of a gamble Spaceport America is for New Mexico. The spaceport is slated to cost $225 million and the future is not at all assured. That said, the payoff could be large for a small town down on its luck like Truth or Consequences. New Mexico has a budget surplus, and Governor Richardson decided to speculate on the future with a portion of the money. To be honest, I would have cut taxes instead, but his gamble is interesting. Richardson could be running for president in '08 and I wonder how this strategy will be perceived by the electorate?
In any event, I had a pleasant visit to the area where Spaceport America will be located and I encourage you to make a visit to see for yourself.