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When your next door neighbor is a glittering spaceport

About 40 miles outside of the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, I was looking for a spaceport in the middle of a desert. “I think maybe that’s it?” I said, pointing at the blur of a building off in the distance. For the last half hour, we had scoured the landscape of dirt and cacti on either side of the lonely road for any sign of our destination, seeing nothing but a few large ranch houses set against the mountains looming on the horizon.

The blur resolved into just another desert home. Disappointed again. Just then, another distant building caught the Sun’s light, and I knew without a doubt that we had found our target. As we approached, a domed hangar emerged from the desert floor, shaped like a cross between a giant glittery sting ray and a turtle.

Called Spaceport America, the shiny new facility features runways and a cavernous room for spaceships to park. It is the result of a $220 million investment from the state of New Mexico and its residents. If all goes to plan, actual spaceships will fly from the site as early as next year.

The spaceport’s primary tenant is Virgin Galactic, a space tourism venture created by billionaire Richard Branson. A seat on the company’s spaceplane goes for $250,000 a pop, and so far, around 600 people have put down deposits in the hopes of flying to the edge of space. The Verge Science team had come to Spaceport America to get an idea of what those customers will experience in the years ahead. When these big spenders arrive to fly, they’ll travel to this very sparse part of New Mexico and spend a few days at Spaceport America, training for their trips and enjoying the modern lounge area designed by Virgin Galactic.

Also when they come, they’ll need a place to stay. That could lead them to a tiny oasis with just two stoplights next door — the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

To visit Spaceport America, we had to travel through Truth or Consequences — nicknamed T or C by its residents. Venturing from one place to the other was like traveling through time. The spaceport embodies the future of aviation and spaceflight, with reflective surfaces everywhere, a swanky cappuccino bar, and an LED walkway that lights up whenever you step on it. Just 43 miles down the road, T or C looks like it’s been ripped straight from a 1950s Western, with frontier-style homes, a handful of main roads, and various funky souvenir shops that sell local artwork, turquoise jewelry, and crystals. Nearby hot springs offer a respite to visitors after a long day in the Sun.

Though the two places could not be more different, they are inextricably linked. The residents of Truth or Consequences approved an extra tax to help fund the spaceport over the last decade. They’re looking forward to finally seeing some of the big changes that they were promised when the project was first announced. They were told that the spaceport would provide an influx of jobs and tourists who were looking to explore the nearby towns whenever they came to fly to space (or watch their loved ones fly to space).

The town of Truth or Consequences
Image: The Verge

Those expectations have yet to manifest into reality. It’s been 15 years since the project got started, and no people have have actually gone to space from the spaceport yet. It’s taken longer for Virgin Galactic to get to space than the company originally envisioned, and in 2014, a fatal in-flight accident caused more delays to the program. But things could finally change in 2020. Virgin Galactic has twice flown its spaceplane to the edge of space and back. Now the company has started to move into Spaceport America after spending more than a decade at the company’s test site in Mojave, California. The company promises that commercial spaceflights could begin as soon as the upcoming summer, with Branson on the very first customer flight.

With Spaceport America, Virgin Galactic and the state of New Mexico are trying to capture some of the energy that central Florida gets every time there’s an important launch out of Cape Canaveral. Whenever a big launch occurs from the Cape, tourists flood the nearby hotels in order to get a glimpse of the rocket climbing into the sky. But it’s still unclear what kind of destination Spaceport America will become and how it will impact the surrounding communities. Other companies have recently faced strained relationships with local communities. Launch behemoth SpaceX started building its future generation rocket next to a tiny residential community in Boca Chica, Texas, and testing the vehicle entails closing roads and transporting materials that cause major inconveniences to nearby residents.

For the town of Truth or Consequences, not much has really changed since Spaceport America was built, and opinions are mixed on whether the residents will experience any positive effects from Virgin Galactic’s operations there. We trekked out to both the town and the spaceport to get a better idea of what’s in store for the area, and whether these two polarizing places will form the symbiotic relationship that was promised over a decade ago.

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