There's a new space race going on, but this one's not sending a human to the moon. States are scrambling to attract commercial investment in an arena many believe could yield hundreds of millions of dollars in return: private space tourism.
At the front of the pack is New Mexico, which could soon become home to the world's first commercial spaceport. In December, Governor Bill Richardson announced a deal with Virgin Galactic, a private space- tourism company, to share construction costs on the $225 million facility. If the state legislature approves funding, New Mexico would foot $135 million of the bill, which includes construction costs for the spaceport as well as $25 million for new roads to the site in the southern part of the state near the town of Truth or Consequences.
The Southwest Regional Spaceport, a 27-square-mile facility that would include a 10,000-foot runway, could be finished by 2010. State officials say the project could bring in thousands of jobs and millions of dollars. But opponents in the legislature argue that financing upper-class tourism--flights with Virgin will run $270,000 for two hours--reeks of elitism in a state that ranks among the nation's poorest.
The mere anticipation of a spaceport has already led to one economic windfall for New Mexico. The New York-based Rocket Racing League in January announced it was relocating its headquarters to southern New Mexico. The League describes itself as "an aerospace entertainment organization"; Richardson calls it "NASCAR in the sky." The League says it will eventually employ up to 200 people at its headquarters; economic reports for the state estimate the move could yield up to $30 million by 2010.