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Senator learns from former lack of vision

Published by Cathleen Manville on Wed Aug 25, 2004 7:40 pm
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Taken from the Alamogordo News

U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., recalls the time some years back when he did not give much credence to a friend’s idea. Bingaman didn’t believe a balloon festival in Albuquerque would ever fly.

Bingaman, who has represented New Mexico for 22 years, laughs at his self-described “lack of vision.” But he learned a lesson relevant today. Promoters are touting private space development and commercial flights from southern New Mexico, and Bingaman is listening.

On Monday, during an Alamogordo visit, he met with Peter Mitchell, the state’s Economic Development Department executive director. The topic was the Ansari X-Prize. The X-Prize Foundation is paying $10 million for the first non-government group to put three people 62 miles into the air, land and relaunch within two weeks. That is expected to happen Sept. 29 with either SpaceShipOne in California or Canadian competitor the DaVinci Team.

Once a winner is declared, Mitchell said New Mexico moves into the spotlight.

The state beat out California, Florida and Oklahoma to host future X-Prize events. According to Mitchell, New Mexico had the edge because coastal states Florida and California have dense commercial air traffic, while southern New Mexico air space is restricted because of White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base. WSMR also has historical data on more than 45,000 post-World War II overland rocket and missile flights.

The first event, the X-Prize Cup Exhibition, is in 2005 at WSMR. For the first time in its more than 60-year history, humans will be allowed to launch from the U.S. Army base.

In September 2006, the X-Prize Cup Competition takes place there.

X-Prize Foundation founder Peter Diamandis expects 10 to 20 launches weekly during the two-to-three week event. Mitchell sees trade fairs and educational opportunities for high school, college and trade school students. He said the tourism potential is $6 billion spread over such communities as Alamogordo, Las Cruces and El Paso.

“Everyone can get a piece of the action,” he said.
New Mexico Economic Development Department Secretary Rick Homans, during an Aug. 17 Alamogordo visit, cited the “economic impact will be significant.”
“I think New Mexico is in the right place to be in the birth of an entire industry,” Homans said.

He envisions 150,000 to 200,000 people attending, a figure on the scale of Albuquerque’s now-world-famous annual balloon fiesta.

The world will be watching — literally.

The Web will broadcast flights to schools nationwide, Mitchell said, and IMAX has broached producing a documentary.

As the industry matures, annual events beginning in 2007 will allow private industry to improve their crafts. That would also keep the tourist dollars skyrocketing in the area. Citizens could ride into space for just thousands of dollars instead of the multi-millions a handful paid a few years back to climb aboard with Russian cosmonauts.

“I think you’ll find a lot of people lining up,” Bingaman said.

He predicted former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson could well be first in line. Johnson is known for his athletic competitiveness in such events as the Iron Man triathalon, hot air ballooning and mountain climbing.
Space Commissioner Dwight Harp hopes to be a space tourist.

“It used to be that only the flat-bellied test pilots of the armed forces had a chance to do that,” Harp said.
Eventually a spaceport will be built with the landing pad in Sierra County, Mitchell told Bingaman, but to do that federal funds are critical. The runway cost alone is $86 million, with another $10 million needed for infrastructure and telemetry technology.

“Is this an avenue you can support?” Harp asked Bingaman.

“As far as the money, we can explore it,” said Bingaman, immediately directing his staff to begin investigating possibilities.

Already, Mitchell said, four space-related companies have expressed interest in moving into southern New Mexico: Starchasers, from the United Kingdom; Armadillo Aerospace, which does propulsion testing; Pioneer Aerospace; and American Astronautics.
Diamandis is scheduled to speak Oct. 23 Alamogordo when the New Mexico Museum of Space History inducts space pioneers into its Hall of Fame.

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