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Grounded: Richard Branson's desert launchpad awaits first space passenger

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Richard Branson, here with New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, promises to launch civilians into space for $250,000 a ride. But no one's left Earth yet. (Spaceport America)

A $208 million project that was supposed to put Truth or Consequences, N.M., on the map -- and well-heeled adventurers into space -- is home to little more than tumbleweeds nearly a decade after it was proposed.

Spaceport America is still supposed to one day send civilians into space for $250,000 tours as part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic enterprise. But the billionaire Brit has been plagued by a failure to launch, and the promise of the project has been stalled on the pad.

“It’s a beautiful facility sitting in the middle of nowhere.”

- Sierra County (N.M.) Commissioner Walter Armijo

“It’s taking Branson a whole lot longer to get this launched; he’s going through a learning process,” Sierra County Manager Marc Huntzinger said of Virgin Galactic, which is supposed to be the anchor tenant for the Spaceport. “Not only have the flights not materialized, the Spaceport is struggling to keep the lights on.”

Some 400 tickets have reportedly been sold, and The Virgin Galactic website continues to ambitiously promote pre-flight reservations.

“The sooner your reservation is made, the sooner you will be traveling to space,” reads the “reservations” tab.

But no one has left Earth so far and only a handful of test launches of vertical rockets have taken off. Sierra County Commissioner Walter Armijo said any boost to the local economy of the taxpayer-subsidized project remains a mirage.

“It’s a beautiful facility sitting in the middle of nowhere,” Armijo said.

Armijo was sold on the plan, pushed by then-Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, as an if-you-build-it-they-will-come project. The project began in 2005, when the idea of civilian space travel was first gaining momentum and the 2-mile runway was named for Richardson.

But so far, according to Armijo, the $208 million project has produced no tangible economic growth in this economically depressed area and is only draining more money.

He is also dismayed that 75 percent of the one-quarter of Sierra and neighboring Dna Ana counties’ 1 percent gross receipts tax goes to the Spaceport to pay off a $20 million bond. He is beginning to feel that money could be put to better use.

“Branson is supposed to get these flights in order but nothing is getting done,” Armijo said. “I’m just not happy with the Spaceport project."

Huntzinger believes that the target market for these launches will be surprised when they come to the Spaceport. He avoided saying disappointed.

“It is a great location for aviation, but not much else,” Huntzinger, who has only taken over the job of county manager in the past year, said.

Christine Anderson, executive director of Spaceport America, contends all is well despite Branson’s delays.

“The Spaceport is on track to being totally self-sufficient,” Anderson insisted, adding that it is already generating jobs and revenue, mainly through tourism and special events.

She said the Spaceport has provided 1,300 jobs and generates $11 million in gross receipts tax which, over the nine-year project, has pitched in some $222,000 annually to the local coffers.

But there are signs state lawmakers are growing wary of throwing more money at the project. The recent New Mexico Legislative session nixed a request for $1 million to be used for a new Welcome Center, approving instead $100,000 to renovate an existing terminal for that use.

With FAA permits in place, the future of the Spaceport is contingent upon whenever Branson can get his flights launched. With the clock ticking and revenues dwindling, the future may be as cloudy as one of the spring dust storms that have been blowing across the Richardson Spaceway.