• Reuters


After passing a sign reading, “Danger: falling aliens,” New Mexico artist Roy Lohr and his dog, Yoda, lead visitors to the “spaceport” he has built in his backyard out of wine bottles and cement.

It is no wonder the lanky 69-year-old embraces the real Spaceport America in his town’s backyard, the world’s first space base built expressly for commercial launches. It soon will be the site of the first space flights with Briton Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

“It is hard for locals to realize the impact it is going to have, but it is slow coming, and this is a tiny little town,” said Lohr. He has no doubt that “things are happening.”

The inaugural flight of the six-passenger SpaceShipTwo should take place this year, carrying Branson from the 3.6-km-long runway to suborbital space about 100 km above Earth.

“As always, safety will ultimately call the shots, but right now, I’m planning to go to space in 2014!” Branson wrote in an email this week. The first of some 700 “astronauts,” who have already paid $250,000 for the over two-hour flight and some minutes of weightlessness, should follow a month later.

After 10 years of conception and construction at the state-run, taxpayer-funded, $212 million Spaceport, the people of Truth or Consequences — population 6,500 — are sensing a shift in confidence as the countdown nears.

While the economic windfall is difficult to estimate for the town, which famously renamed itself after a radio quiz show in 1950, almost everyone in these parts agrees the Spaceport should inject new energy into the somewhat tattered and totally quirky “T or C,” as it is known in local parlance.

“There might have been some doubt about how much T or C would be ready for all of this future endeavor,” said Cydney Wilkes, who bought and renovated a motel with his wife, Val, a few years ago and called it Rocket Inn.

“I think that in the last few months, that shifted . . . that maybe we can pull up and measure up,” she added, noting that the Virgin team is helping the hospitality industry spiffy up.

There is a new Wal-Mart north of town, next to where a Spaceport visitors’ center will go up. It is not yet known where Virgin will lodge the astronauts for three days of training. It could choose the bigger town of Las Cruces to the south.

But Truth or Consequences’ townspeople are particularly proud that Ted Turner, the media mogul-turned-conservationist and local rancher, bought the historic Sierra Grande Lodge last year, citing myriad reasons, including the Spaceport, his friend Branson and the famous waters of the dusty town once called Hot Springs.

The 50-km drive out to Spaceport America over the sparsely populated high desert plain is a journey through time. Paleo-Indians roamed here some 12,000 years ago, the Spanish built the El Camino Real passage here, a century-old dam across the Rio Grande brought settlement, and the White Sands Missile Range made it a gigantic area of restricted air space.

While the Spaceport brings a futuristic vision to the old West, it is meant to blend in. The signature building, designed by the firm of British architect Sir Norman Foster, melds into the distant mountains like a giant portobello mushroom.

“It feels much more real, but it also feels like I am looking at something that is a set for a science-fiction movie,” said Doug Sporn, who visited to take the “Follow The Sun” tour to Spaceport after hearing Branson will go to space soon.

Branson isn’t the only famous entrepreneur there, either. He is joined by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, founded in 2002 with the ultimate goal of sending people to inhabit other planets. SpaceX, which already has craft supplying the International Space Station, has chosen the Spaceport to test the Falcon 9 reusable rocket, which will launch vertically and then land intact.

“It really is the democratization of space,” said Spaceport Executive Director Christine Anderson, “that you and I and our children and grandchildren can think about going to space, about going to Mars.”

She estimates there will be 200,000 visitors per year to Spaceport “when all our customers are flying.”

Those kinds of numbers are feeding the first shoots of space business, from Jeff Dukatt’s psychedelic T-shirts sporting a cowboy-on-rocket motif to Follow The Sun’s new Spaceplace tour base, where freeze-dried ice cream is for sale and there is extra space for start-ups to operate.

“We don’t know where the opportunities are going to be. We just know a facility like this will line us up,” said Follow The Sun’s Mark Bleth, echoing the kind of wonder around town about where this all could lead.

Then there is that lingering question of whether Truth or Consequences can preserve the quirky character and Western ruggedness that has attracted free spirits and artists for decades.

“My guess is that the real culture and heritage of Southern New Mexico is pretty firmly ingrained,” said Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. “I would doubt that just because we start doing our spaceflights, the intrinsic character changes.”

Lohr, the artist, relishes the “nice miniculture embedded in a trailer town,” and said Spaceport shouldn’t detract from the charms of Truth or Consequences, but rather attract more interest in them. If he gets a free ticket, Lohr is game to go to space, but only “if Yoda would come with me.”

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