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 V.15 No.4 | January 26 - February 1, 2006 

Ortiz y Pino

Spaceport or Spacepork

It was almost irresistible as a target for smart-aleck punditry. “The New Mexico Regional Spaceport” just sounds like some sort of setup for a comic strip punchline. Toss in the virtually empty location selected for it near “Upham,” a railroad junction southeast of “Truth or Consequences” and not far from “Hatch,” and you practically have a SNL skit writing itself, laugh track included.

I confess, I was all set to make as many sophomoric comments about this venture as I could dream up. And when “Virgin Galactic” turned out to be the name of the first corporate business partner to sign up to use the space port, my internal adolescent gag pump was turned on high.

It all seemed like such a flimsy premise on which to spend $100 million of taxpayer dollars.

Well, I have to tell you, after listening to a couple of hours of debate and questioning on the concept, I'm surprised to find myself seriously considering it a reasonable venture to take a chance on. Really. No joking intended.

Two things keep coming to mind. The first is the specter of Bill Gates being turned down at an Albuquerque bank for the $2,000 loan he needed to keep his nascent brainchild of an enterprise afloat. Rejected by safe-thinkers here, he took his idea elsewhere and Microsoft made Seattle wealthy instead of Albuquerque.

The second is the advice an old gambler once gave a friend of mine. “Never gamble with scared money.” We've never had a spare $100 million to roll the dice with before. If this spin amounts to a crap-out, well, it's not like it was the rent or baby formula money ... it's all windfall profit from sky-high oil and natural gas prices, not hard-earned bucks from the sweat of our brows. So I say that now's the time for us to roll the dice—fearlessly.

If we hit the jackpot, what will we get for the money?

We can't rightly say. After all, this is just a first step in a brand-new industry. It could lead nowhere. Many bright ideas don't ever catch fire, they just sit there smudging. The Spaceport isn't likely to be a big success if it doesn't lead anywhere beyond up-and-back day trips into suborbital space for wealthy thrill-seekers.

Such an exploit might draw the attention of a few thousand curious folks ... but once it becomes clear that no explosions are happening and the “flights” only get safer over time, I don't think it will amount to much of a tourist draw. NASCAR's wrecks are what generate excitement, draw the crowds; not clear-sailing down the straight-away toward the finish line.

No, Virgin Galactic's space-tourism may pay the bills and attract initial attention, but it will have to be other, still unidentified (or not-yet-in-existence) corporate uses of the facility that push us into a true industrial frontier, that build a genuine need or market that can only be met at ... Upham. (We've got to find another name for the site; something with pizzazz. Upham sounds way too close to Umph.)

What southern New Mexico has is, in its own way, something akin to the famous “Albuquerque Box” that makes this city the hot air ballooning mecca of the world: a unique combination of geography, weather and atmosphere that cannot be replicated anywhere else. We should capitalize on it.

If we don't, there are plenty of other aggressive locales (Texas, Florida, California's Mojave Desert) that would love to jump in, but they are all, for a variety of reasons, second-best. The Jornada del Muerto (to use the old Mexican and Spanish name for the site) is No. 1.

Nowhere else in the country boasts such a combination of flat, open land in public hands, an airspace free of competing air traffic, and a climate that permits launching and landing virtually 365 days a year. Upham would make the perfect Vanishing Point.

This is a state with enormous needs. Our schools could certainly put $100 million to effective use. That much money could provide health care for thousands of New Mexicans who currently go without. Affordable housing for practically all of our homeless would cost less than that. We could build bridges, water treatment plants, community centers and sewage systems with those funds.

So it is not an easy choice to make, to sink $100 million into what could be a dry hole. But ... if we do hit it big with the commercial space industry, then we'll be able to afford many times that number of schools, clinics, water systems and bridges. We'll have generated good-paying jobs for thousands of New Mexicans and given extra motivation to another generation to get good educations.

We will have hit a winner and all of New Mexico's people will benefit.

It isn't a sure thing. No one is making guarantees or offering to refund all our money if it doesn't take off. But there aren't many places that get the chance to dream big even once. This could be our second chance.

Then, if we do hit the jackpot, someone ought to send Bill Gates a check for $2,000. Better late than never.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail jerry@alibi.com.

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