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In New Mexico, ambitions sky-high for spaceport

Supporters say facility could create 5,000 jobs

LAS CRUCES, N.M. -- After Bill McCamley earned his master's degree from Harvard in 2003, he returned to this sleepy city in a forgotten corner of the country's third-poorest state.

It took him nine months to find a decent job -- selling commercial real estate. That is not unusual in this part of New Mexico, where young people flee to Colorado or Texas in search of gainful employment.

But McCamley's experience left a lasting impression. Today, he hopes to jump-start the economy in his hometown of 82,000 -- by campaigning for a state-funded spaceport to send millionaire tourists into orbit.

McCamley, 28, left his real estate job soon after he won election as a county commissioner in 2004. He has big hopes for Spaceport America, currently little more than an expanse of desert, a concrete launch pad, and two temporary mission-control trailers.

He's one of dozens of believers who envision paparazzi and space enthusiasts staying at local hotels and mingling with highly paid engineers and scientists who would transform this swath of mobile homes and chile farms into a high-tech hub.

"If you look at the airline industry, I'm sure people said, 'This is crazy,' when it first came out," said McCamley, waiting with 100 other guests for the first launch of an unmanned rocket from the 17,000-acre site. Moments earlier, an official from New Mexico State University had touted an upcoming space conference that also would feature a rodeo. "But if you look at it, it evolved into a very stable part of our economy."

A recent study commissioned by the state found that a fully operational spaceport could create 5,000 jobs.

"To a state like Florida or California or Texas, that's really a drop in the bucket," said Rick Homans, director of the state's Economic Development Department. "In New Mexico, 5,000 jobs and the PR and image that goes with it can really transform the economy of the state."

Eight states, including Texas, Wisconsin, and Utah, are considering commercial spaceports, with some hoping for a slice of the rapidly emerging space tourism industry. But space observers say that New Mexico -- whose poverty rate trails only Louisiana and Mississippi -- has the most government support and private interest.

Governor Bill Richardson wooed billionaire Richard Branson to anchor the spaceport with his business Virgin Galactic, which would build a civilian fleet of spacecraft to fly thousands of passengers into space. Virgin Galactic already has signed up more than 1,000 space tourists, including actress Victoria Principal, "X-Men" director Bryan Singer, and designer Philippe Starck.

Though the first round of passengers probably would launch from a spaceport in Mojave, Calif., Virgin said it would move operations to New Mexico once Spaceport America was completed. The New Mexico Legislature last year approved $100 million to finance the project, which is expected to cost about $225 million. Construction could begin late next year.

Critics brand it as wasteful spending and say New Mexico is pursuing the spaceport because of Richardson's ambitions -- the former energy secretary is a likely contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 -- and the desperation of the isolated southern end of the state.

"This is your classic Old West story of your snake-oil salesman who comes to the dying town promising to revitalize it," said Democratic state Senator John Grubesic, who voted against the project. "Unfortunately, people have bought it, hook, line, and sinker."

Local officials argue that their scarcely populated region is a natural place for space launches. The site is on a plateau 4,300 feet above sea level, providing a shorter flight out of the atmosphere. The dry climate and clear weather permit reliable departures.

Boosters also point to the region's history of Space Age innovation. The first atomic bomb was exploded a few dozen miles north during World War II. Neighboring White Sands Missile Range sends hundreds of military rockets into orbit each year, and commercial flights are banned from flying overhead, leaving airspace clear for spaceships.

"We have to take advantage of this," McCamley said. "This is the one thing we've got that no one else has."

Years ago, officials planted two signs along the interstate announcing the "future site of the New Mexico Spaceport." Now a sign announces that the county is home of the spaceport and adds: "You can get there from here!"

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