On April 28, 2001, an American billionaire named Dennis Tito became the world’s first space tourist, paying the Russian space agency about $20 million for a little more than a week in space, 128 earth orbits in 7 days, 22 hours and 4 minutes.
Over the next 8 years, half a dozen other extremely rich people, including an Iranian-American telecoms businesswoman named Anousheh Ansari, the video game designer Richard Garriott, and a Hungarian-American software magnate named Charles Simonyi paid anywhere from $20 to $40 million each for space tours that lasted from 11 to 15 days. Simonyi liked his ride so much, he took a second one.
But, why, asked the British Billionaire Richard Branson should space tours be limited to the superrich? He envisioned a short-form space shot, up to sub-orbital altitudes and then back to earth, that even an ordinary millionaire’s money could buy. Branson’s idea was regular flights, 6 passengers at a time, at $200,000 a pop. Today, the price has gone up to $250,000, but Branson’s Virgin Galactic Company claims it has 600 tickets already sold.
Does that make Branson’s space tourism idea viral? Maybe not, but it was contagious enough to create space fever in the State of New Mexico. Urged on by then-Governor Bill Richardson, the state invested $220 million in Spaceport, an airport where Branson’s space-shot airline would be the prime tenant.
The investment came with a wider vision. The $220 million would not only produce a home base for Branson’s space flights, it could get a foot in the door of what promises to be an industry of the future…transporting people and materials into and back from space, and it would enhance STEM, science and technology education in the public schools of southern New Mexico, creating jobs and a workforce to fill them.
So far, that vision remains aspirational. Two devastating accidents have set back Virgin Galactic’s effort to build a proper space plane. Right now, testing continues in Mojave, California, while in Las Cruces and at the spaceport an hour’s drive out of town, the current job count is 51, with, it is hoped, another 90 on the way, if Virgin Galactic’s space flights actually begin in 2018.
Meanwhile, Spaceport America has the look of someone on life support, with a thin and tenuous feeding tube of State and local tax money. It’s critics say, the project should get no further resuscitation, while backers ask for patience and more money on the grounds that…if Virgin Galactic’s space planes start flying so will the whole original proposal, a win-win for everyone, especially the impoverished economy of Southern New Mexico.
Heath Haussamen, an award-winning journalist based in Las Cruces, NM. He is editor and publishers of the online news site NMPolitics.net where he won a first-place award for commentary writing in the 2017 multi-state Top of the Rockies contest. NMPolitics.net took home five journalism awards recently in the 2017 New Mexico Press Women contest.
Here is how Haussamen describes NMPolitics.net: “In these polarized times, NMPolitics.net operates from a belief that the best way forward is together – that we must do the hard work of listening and understanding each other so we can find solutions that work for as many people as possible. We aim to do journalism that fosters conversation and builds community.“