Bad bet, or Spaceport "America" ​​as an attempt by New Mexico to invest in space exploration

Original author: Ingrid Burrington
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Source: Nigel Young / Foster and Partners

Spaceport America was conceived as a way to invite the booming space industry into the southern deserts of New Mexico - now, unfortunately, this is not a “calm bay” on the road to space, but only a futuristic attraction for tourists.

Some time after leaving the small resort town of Trut-a-Consequenes, New Mexico , monitors come to life on a sightseeing bus. On the screen there is night and twinkling stars, a flute is playing quietly from the speakers, and then a low voice begins the narration: "Everything that you see around was once the seabed." Conquistadors called this desert Jornada del Muerto, "The Way of the Dead." While we are slowly rolling along the road, the narrator entertains tourists with stories about celestial riddles.

This is the road to the spaceport "America", boldly called "the first specially built commercial spaceport." And, according to the commercials on the bus, this is not just a sleeping industrial park, erected for the vague promises of "economic prosperity", but almost the last stop before the start for everyone who has an insatiable desire to reach the stars.

The complex lies twenty miles southwest of Trut-a-Consequenes and fifty miles north of Las Cruces, and it’s hard to get rid of the feeling that everything here has frozen in the infinite and uncertain “today”. Despite the fact that the cosmodrome reached airworthiness back in 2010, the widely publicized suborbital flights of Virgin Galactic, one of the main tenants, have not yet begun. Yes, we can see that in many regions of the world private astronautics is now “at a turning point”, but this wave of changes will not reach the cities of New Mexico that have invested in the “future”. Of course, there are not many places on the planet where such an initiative, especially with an application for the provision of international services, looks plausible. But if you take into account the large and rather ambiguous investments made here by the state, the result,

The appearance of "America" ​​is so far nothing more than another event in the long and glorious history of military and aerospace research conducted in this southwestern corner. Our video guide quickly skips Spanish colonization and eastward expansion of the country to go to the Manhattan project in Los Alamos, in the north of the state, and Operation “Clip”, a secret program for the export of German scientists to the United States after the Second World War, such as Werner von Braun, general designer of the V-2 missiles.

The White Sands test site, spread over eight thousand square kilometers in the basin of Tularos, saw a lot: and the Trinity explosion, the first atomic bomb, and the take-off of von Braun missiles. The cosmodrome is adjacent to the army territory and is located in a carefully guarded airspace, so testing rocketry without interference in these parts is somewhat simpler.
Now, unfortunately, this is not a “calm bay” on the road to space, but only a futuristic attraction for tourists.
Another reason for the appearance of the site here is money. In 2006, Bill Richardson, then governor of New Mexico, signed a partnership agreement with Virgin Galactic to build a new headquarters for the company. The state paid $ 220 million from the budget for the construction, and part of the amount came from the neighboring districts of Doña Ana (Trut-or-Consequenes is located there) and Sierra (Las Cruces) due to an increase in gross income tax. It is expected that through additional taxation until 2029 a total of $ 75 million will be received . Instead, the local population is waiting for economic changes, and not without reason - according to the US Census Bureau in Sierra County, the lowest median income of the thirty-three counties in New Mexico.

Mandy Gass, a business development adviser to the Las Cruces administration, is full of hope for the potential impact of the spaceport on the fate of the city and its identity. “It's just amazing, as if you are already in the future,” she says. “I think we certainly became more visible on the map.”

In addition to the “domino effect” caused by the relocation of ninety Virgin workers here (in addition to the twenty-one that have already moved to Las Cruces), the city is eagerly awaiting the arrival of other space companies.

The runway of the spaceport "America". Photo: Nigel Young / Foster and Partners

But Stephen Green, the mayor of Trut-a-Consequeneses, annoyingly admits that a town with a population of six and a half thousand people is mostly famous for its hot springs (“Hot Springs” - that is, literally “hot springs”, as the city was called 1950, until the name was changed in honor of the popular TV show with riddles; residents usually call it “T-o-K”) and obviously is not at the peak of popularity: “I understand that Las Cruces attracts the lion's share of those who gets to these places. We are rather for those who are tired of the "rhythm of the big city." But Green also expects an increase in tourist flow after commercial space flights begin.

If they start. At the moment, this is just a futuristic attraction for visitors, and not a convenient harbor for space pioneers. Tourist buses depart from the former city public center on Saturdays twice a day; they drive past thrift stores, trailer parks, and keep their way to structures that defiantly stick out near the mountains; with all its softly rounded outlines, these structures leave a strange feeling of solidity and reliability. Along the way, we drive through the stunning Elephant Butte Dam , which, after twenty years of labor from the Bureau of Land Reclamation engineers, has been able to farm in southern New Mexico; however, a friend of mine from tourists notes that the water level in the reservoir has decreased significantly compared to his childhood memories.

The architecture of the spaceport "America" ​​is monolithic concrete domes and curved shapes of the color of wet earth, completely inconspicuous and therefore not too impressive; a kind of "false modesty." Its design seems to refer to another famous attraction of the Southwest, which was often mistaken for the "city of the future": Arcosanti , the "urban laboratory" by Paolo Soleri , who settled in the mountains north of Phoenix in 1970. Yes, they are indeed strangely similar: probably Soleri in his imagination saw a utopian city in the middle of the desert as easily as the concepts of “arcology” - self-sustaining “ecological architecture”, which the author later embodied in prototype space shuttles and projects of hypothetical residential complexes for the asteroid belt.

Architect Paolo Soleri on the background of a model of his own design, representing a hypothetical view of the rocket city. Photo: Bob Daugherty / Associated Press

It's hard to disagree, the object is really quite similar to Soleri's animated sketches.

Official excursions are held on weekends, so on Saturday the local Control Center looks a bit empty. They say that work is still being done here, but there are not so many obvious signs of activity. The office rented by Virgin Galactic scotch taped the traces of furniture on the carpet, most likely with the goal of putting it back in its original place. And the only spacecraft that we saw was the SpaceShipTwo mockup that gleamed in the corner of an empty hangar. Even the spaceship is fake.

Frankly speaking, the name itself - "Spaceport" America "- sounds too pompous and theatrical. There are already a number of private launch complexes in the United States, and there are often more activities and guests there. The same Virgin conducts most of its tests in the aerospace center of Mojave , while the Mid-Atlantic regional spaceport recently hosted the company Vector, one of the main competitors of SpaceX.

Although there is no doubt, there are others, like the Oklahoma aerospace airportthat are even more like ghost towns than America. But New Mexico, choosing such a name, is clearly trying to play on a sense of national pride; alas, this place is like the frontier of private space exploration no more than the scenery for a science fiction film.

Rather, it is a certain quintessence of the plot about the American wasteland: “future” as “rehearsal” rather than reality. You can’t argue: many projects of urbanists begin as “drive prototypes through the desert”. Hyperloop One test branch is located in Nevada, unmanned vehicles ride around Tempe, Arizona, and Bill Gates for a pilot project of unmanned vehicleschose Arizona Belmont; jokes as jokes, but the habit of considering the desert as a canvas for creating utopian masterpieces is still strong today, from the Mormon Desert State to Black Rock City at the Burning Man festival. Although, New Mexico in this case seems to us rather a rehearsal of dystopia, because most of the scientific and defense enterprises here arose for the Manhattan project - field tests of nuclear weapons “somewhere in the middle of nothing”, then to use it to wipe the world into powder, literally.

There are not too many “rehearsals” in the spaceport (although they filmed science fiction here - The Space Between Us ). Virgin Galactic after a crash with the death of one pilot and the injury of a secondin 2014, she postponed her own plans to solve the problem that the National Transport Safety Council formulated as “the inability to think over and develop precautions for a scenario in which the crew’s only mistake leads to disaster.” Although, of course, a successful flight in 2018 somewhat restored the belief that space tourism, after so many years of waiting, is literally on the verge. While we were traveling to Las Cruces, Mandy Gass spoke out on this subject with cautious optimism: “No doubt many will not believe until they see with their own eyes. However, in general, we are encouraged and full of hope. "

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceship awaits better times. Photo: Nigel Young / Foster and Partners

Despite the lack of attention from Virgin Galactic, something is still happening here. True, America has not yet become a tourist Mecca, however, some sprouts in the form of excursion tours every Saturday, bringing a small stable income to the municipal treasury, are still there, and the aerospace industry is developing little by little. For example, Google tested SkyBender here , its own project to organize high-speed Internet through unmanned vehicles. Also at the cosmodrome they like to boast of holding 39 vertical and 7 horizontal launches, including launches organized by UP Aerospace in collaboration with the White Sands training ground, and sending urns with ashes as part of Celestis memorial space flights. And during one of the tours, some firefighter draws our attention to the hangar rented by Boeing for testing the new CST-100 Starliner .

The success of the aerospace outside of New Mexico immediately caused a stir among those who supported the construction of the spaceport; for example, some time after my trip, Elon Musk successfully launched his Tesla personal vehicle using the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle, which added to the cheerfulness of the entire private space program as a whole. (Alas, although SpaceX was planning to rent a launch here on a regular basis, its interests soon shifted to its own complex in Brownsville , Texas)
Those passengers who are able to afford to spend $ 250,000 on a ticket can make a short trip to the zero gravity zone and safely return to Earth.
But when there is really nothing to demonstrate in fact, many space companies suddenly start to believe that almost all the results of their work need to be protected no worse than commercial secrets - and sometimes it comes to the point that publicity regarding financing and ownership is recognized as a serious obstacle to the development of projects. And now, the New Mexico Legislative Assembly overwhelmingly passed a bill in which the spaceport receives exclusive rightDo not respond to civil requests. America’s Executive Director Dan Hicks, arguing in defense of the bill, said many potential customers chose other launching sites for fear of competitors collecting information about their activities through public inquiries. Thus, the legislative assembly satisfied the requirements of the spaceport, and at the same meeting, it was decided to transfer another 10 million dollars for operating expenses and the construction of another hangar.

Demonstration stand for tourists as an attempt to place plans for the development of the complex in the context of geological eras. Photo: Ingrid Burrington

Before the bill was adopted, minor changes were made that reassured those who advocated transparency of the authorities, but still, the administration of America was given the opportunity to decide which requests it would answer. In addition, it is completely unclear what to do if tenants want to hide the toxic chemicals spill or arrange some other environmental accident (the amendment on this issue, made by one of the members of the legislative assembly, Jeff Steinborn, was rejected). The cosmodrome also recognizes the validity of such concern, but insists that according to the adopted law, in such cases it will be possible to effectively take measures.

For those state towns that view the spaceport as the engine of the economy, the ban on asking is presented as the price of doing business. “I think New Mexico will only benefit from this,” said Green, Mayor of Trut-a-Consequenes, when the conversation turned to the slippery path of “exclusivity” for state-financed projects. “I don’t understand why the public should know what here SpaceX, Boeing, Virgin are engaged, what technologies are being tested. This is their business. Want to know what they do? Buy their stock. ”

And here is the editor of the web publication NMPolitics.netHeath Hussamin, in contrast, believes that success cannot be achieved by acting secretly. “I really hope that America will work,” he says, “I have been living here all my life, and my daughter is already six. Alas, the main export resource of New Mexico is young people, because we can educate them, but we cannot provide opportunities for self-realization. ” He is encouraged to think about the consequences of having a spaceport in the long run. For example, taxes that Sierra and Doña Ana would pay could be allowed to introduce STEM programs in schools . Hussamin believes that the spaceport will revive the economy, but he also believes that “it is a duty and the right of any person to know what he will ultimately get for his money.”

Perhaps, precisely because of the emphasis on secrecy in the marketing materials of America, as well as in the information for tourists, there is nothing but Virgin Galactic's plans for space tourism. Those passengers who are able to afford to spend $ 250,000 on a ticket can make a short trip to the zero gravity zone and safely return to Earth. This is quite far from "space flights at affordable prices," and even more so does not fit the role of the main and stable source of income. Judging by the lack of noticeable activity in the Virgin office, their flights are more like tricks than science; but for some reason, most members of my travel group accept all plans for “future travels to the Martian colonies” as fait accompli. At first, it is not very clear why people in the desert dream of an even more uncomfortable place for life.

But the mythology of the American "frontier" here overlaps with the actual borderline: extreme environments, deep space and remote corners of the desert have much in common. This explains, for example, the Mars Desert Research Station project launched in Utah., an experiment to create a habitable shelter in pseudo-Martian conditions for testing the technology of future expeditions. Dreams of finding yourself in outer space are somewhat similar to the dream of conquering the desert: there is uncharted space, you can probably find a rich source of resources there, and mysterious new lands may be better than the hopeless ones that the traveler leaves behind. This region has seen many boom-and-bust cycles during mining and oil and gas production, there is always a lack of prospects, life is mainly determined by the art of bargaining for water , and climate change poses a real threat (the state is more than half now experiencing severe drought) - this is probably why for local residents the belief in the inevitable colonization of Mars is not too different from the belief in the ability to survive in the Southwest.

To doubt the inevitability of technological and social progress with the advent of the railway branch was tantamount to doubt in the Will of the Lord
Perhaps this is the truth about "America", which is not customary to discuss - but which cannot be avoided. After all, the romance and attractiveness of the Wild West rested, among other things, on federal land grants for private offices, which then erected boomtowns in places that were previously considered lifeless wasteland . Cities grew and faded depending on how the map of railways changed; for example, the last sharp turn in the history of Las Cruces came when the city sold the pre-emptive right to travel to Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad and turned into a major transit hub.

This earth bus seemed to accidentally find itself in the shadow of an alien structure that makes up a ghost town. Photo: Ingrid Burrington

In the words of proponents of “rock,” in those days, to doubt the inevitability of technological and social progress with the advent of the railway line was tantamount to doubt in the will of the Lord. Nowadays, to ask about the need to develop space exploration, financed (mainly) from non-public sources, is how to ask the question “Why is technical progress needed at all?” The spaceport America in this sense does not differ from the towns spawned by railway and mining companies, and even openly draws such parallels in its advertising booklets - in which, by the way, “progress” acts as a smoke screen from the requirements to openly publish accounting reports and worries about investing in such projects of taxpayer funds. The "romance" of the cosmos here, alas, is designed to distract from the fact that in general, the spaceport is primarily a resource that receives subsidies from the state budget, but mainly serves private traders, and it was built not for entertainment, but in order to attract additional money and a new technology industry to the poor and starving for jobs area. The declared price and PR rhetoric, of course, look different here than in the cities that fight in the tender wars for the rightto build another Facebook data center or corporate technology campus, but the public’s concern is about public funding of private companies, which also require tax benefits along with a secrecy regime (apart from questions about when those who feel the profit from projects needs it most) - remains everywhere more or less the same.

The bus returns to Trut-a-Consequenes, and we watch another video presenting an increase in the availability of space through an increase in the efficiency of private business. We are reminded that New Mexico has always been on the path to prosperity, "from petroglyphs to spaceships." I don’t argue, the spaceport has already become part of the history of the South-West, but so far this is a very depressing story without an obvious happy ending. When you are standing on an empty runway or traveling through New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada or California, a long string of ghost towns from the never-arrived “tomorrow” looms relentlessly before your eyes, interspersed with places frozen in the eternal “ now, "and thinking about it is extremely dreary.

I watch a group of bored cows on Jornada del Muerto, leaving the spaceport America behind me, and wonder if progress will always look like a “rehearsal” before we really find ourselves in a certain “future”, or if we are doomed live forever in the illusion of a “future on the doorstep” until we finally lose interest in the endless repetition of the same scene. And I do not find the right answer; who knows, maybe this year the “future” will finally come to America, shaming all impatient skeptics.

Indeed, here, in the desert, it always seems that the best of times are waiting for you literally around the corner.

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