Moment of truth nears for sleepy U.S. town on cusp of space flight

Thu May 8, 2014 1:27pm EDT
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By Mary Milliken

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES New Mexico (Reuters) - After passing the sign reading "Danger Falling Aliens," New Mexico artist Roy Lohr and dog Yoda lead visitors to the "Spaceport" he has built in his backyard out of wine bottles and cement.

It's 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 and soon-to-be site of the first space flights with 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. But he has no doubt "things are happening."

The inaugural flight of the six-passenger SpaceShipTwo should take place this year, carrying Branson from the 12,000-foot (3.6 km) runway to suborbital space about 65 miles (100 km) from 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 e-mail this week. The first of some 700 "astronauts," who have already paid $250,000 for the two-hour-plus 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 that famously renamed itself after a radio quiz show in 1950, most 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 wife Val a few years ago and called it, aptly, Rocket Inn.   Continued...

A view of the perimeter fence of Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico May 1, 2014.  REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson