N.M. spaceport is built - but who will come?

The hangar facility at Spaceport America, northeast of Truth or Consequences, N.M., is seen in this October 17, 2011 file photo. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

(AP) TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M. - New Mexico Tourism Secretary Monique Jacobson says it will be New Mexico's Sydney Opera House. Virgin Galactic Chairman Richard Branson has hinted it will host the first of his new brand of lifestyle hotels. And the eclectic hot springs town of Truth or Consequences has been anxiously awaiting all the economic development the nearly quarter-of-a-billion-dollar project is supposed to bring to this largely rural part of southern New Mexico.

But as phase one of Spaceport America, the world's first commercial port built specifically for sending tourists and payloads into space, is nearing completion, the only new hotel project that has been finalized is a Holiday Inn Express here in Truth or Consequences, about 25 miles away. And three key companies with millions of dollars in payroll have passed on developing operations in the state.

The lagging development, along with competition from heavy hitters like Florida and Texas, is raising new questions about the viability of the $209 billion taxpayer-funded project — as well as the rush by so many states to grab a piece of the commercial spaceport pie. To date, nine spaceports are planned around the United States, mostly at existing airports, and another 10 have been proposed, according to a recent report from the New Mexico Spaceport Authority.

"Right now, the industry is not there to support it," Alex Ignatiev, a University of Houston physics professor and adviser to space companies, said of the list of planned and proposed spaceports across America.

A crowd of guests and media watch as WhiteKnightTwo, carrying SpaceShipTwo, prepares to take flight over Spaceport America, northeast of Truth or Consequences, N.M., October 17, 2011. Sir Richard Branson's estimate for a first manned flight by Virgin Galactic has been pushed back until late 2013 at the earliest.
FREDERIC J. BROWN

Andrew Nelson, COO of XCOR Aerospace, disagrees, saying "in the next couple to three years, there's going to be a demonstrative reduction in the cost to launch stuff ... so we are going to have a lot more people coming out of the woodwork."

Currently, the Spaceport can count on two rocket companies that send vertical payloads into space and Virgin Galactic, the Branson space tourism venture that says it has signed up more than 500 wealthy adventurers for $200,000-per-person spaceflights. Other leaders in the race to commercialize the business and send tourists into space have been passing on New Mexico.

For example, XCOR Aerospace, which manufactures reusable rocket engines for major aerospace contractors and is designing a two-person space vehicle called the Lynx, has twice passed over New Mexico in favor of Texas and Florida. Most recently, it announced plans to locate its new Commercial Space Research and Development Center Headquarters in Midland, Texas.

Another company, RocketCrafters, Inc., passed over New Mexico for Titusville, Fla. And the space tourism company of SpaceX, is looking at basing a plant with $50 million in annual salaries to Brownsville, Texas.

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