Spaceport America’s Problematic “Democratization of Space Travel”

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Spaceport America’s Problematic “Democratization of Space Travel”

It’s about 150 miles of creosote and juniper thick highway from my home in Albuquerque to the city of Truth or Consequences in the heart of Sierra County, New Mexico. Truth or Consequences is a sleepy town of around 6,000 with little industry, once built upon the success of its natural hot springs. In fact, the town was originally called Hot Springs, but the city hastily changed its name to Truth or Consequences when a popular 1950’s radio show of the same name pledged to host their 10 year anniversary program from the first city to change it’s name. Hot Springs earned the honor and became the city known colloquially in New Mexico as T or C.

Truth or Consequences the radio show is largely forgotten today, and Truth or Consequences the town is largely neglected—having the distinction of being one of the poorest cities, in one of the poorest counties, in one of the poorest states in the U.S.

Unexpectedly, this dusty city, in a dusty tract of New Mexico rarely visited by tourists, is now Earth’s premier portal to another world.

Spaceport America’s Inception

In 2008, voters in Sierra County approved a tax hike that would provide the funds necessary to build a compound promoted by millionaire Richard Branson as part of his Virgin Galactic venture. The space hub would reside only 28 miles outside of T or C. Cutting public school budgets, and holding off on city water system repairs, Sierra County generated five million dollars by 2014 to put toward the first commercial spaceport in the world, with big hopes of becoming a leader in the aerospace industry, and in anticipation of a massive boon to local economy.

There had been lots of talk in the preceding years about creating the opportunity for leisure travel to outer space. Richard Branson was just one of several impresarios getting in on what everyone assumed would be a massive moneymaker. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and multi-business mogul Elon Musk also started to develop their own commercial space flight programs. All began busily promoting their new business endeavors as the birth of a new age of space travel, “the people’s space age.”

The Cost of Commercial Space Travel

The people’s space age, of course, comes at a cost. To be more precise, the exact cost is around $250,000 for a few hours of travel—several minutes of which allow passengers to experience weightlessness. Reportedly, nearly 700 people have bought tickets for commercial flights so far. These include a few names from the list of usual suspects: Justin Bieber, Tom Hanks, Lady Gaga, Leonardo DiCaprio. You get it—the wealthy. What that means for the so-called democratization of space travel is clear: like so many places and experiences, space remains the domain of the world’s wealthiest. No longer the most talented, or those who have spent years training for the journey. Just those with the most cash on hand.

But the costs are more than the dollar amount tacked on to a ticket from SpaceX, Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin. There have been more human costs involved in these ventures.

Branson’s Virgin Galactic, a business which was to be a primary lessee of Spaceport America, had once promised that commercial flights would be regular fare by 2011. Those plans were stalled early on and then further delayed after the tragic test flight of SpaceShipTwo over the Mojave Desert in October of 2014. The flight for Virgin Galactic went wrong due to co-pilot error and the failure of the engineers of the craft to anticipate such an occurrence, and the vessel crashed. These oversights resulted in the death of pilot Michael Alsbury and the injury of the second pilot, Peter Siebold. In the aftermath of the crash, no further timetables have been released on when regular, commercial flights might commence.

Meanwhile, in T or C

Meanwhile, those human costs extend indefinitely for the people of Truth or Consequences and Sierra County. The greater population of the county banked on the pipe dreams of the wealthy, and have yet to see any return on them. For years, taxpayers in and around T or C (where, one might note, the average income is around $15,000 annually and one-third of residents live below the poverty line) have continued to bootstrap the cost of the spaceport—which averages around $500,000 each year to maintain, a burden that was meant to be shouldered by the sponsorship of big businesses flying out of the hub. For now, the 12,000 foot runway meant to send travelers into the stars remains empty and the playing field that was meant to be leveled through access to the wonders of the universe has only served to tip small town New Mexicans further into poverty.

Most of the residents of Truth or Consequences aren’t going to be flying out of Spaceport America into the atmosphere. In fact, most average Americans will never be able to pony up the price of admission to the stars. Instead, in the Jornada Del Muerto desert where the Spaceport waits, empty and idle, working class residents gaze upward, buying into the future, while burdened, as ever, with the costs of development.