Inside the Desert Town Home to Richard Branson’s Spaceport

  • New Mexico, one of the poorest states in the US, paid $220 million to build Spaceport America.
  • Sunday’s launch has some hopeful that space tourism will revitalize their struggling town.
  • Other business owners are skeptical, saying they’ve seen little positive impact from the investment.

“This is transformative,” Val Wilkes told her wife while looking through binoculars at Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity as it shot through the blue Sunday-morning sky.

However, even her fascination with space travel hasn’t dulled her skepticism about how the space tourism company might impact the town. Val and her wife Cydney Wilkes co-own the Rocket Inn, located in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, the sleepy town where futuristic planes rocket the society’s upper crust into space. New Mexico, one of the poorest states in the US, used $220 million in taxpayer money to pay for the construction of Spaceport America, but Val, who lives in one of the poorest counties in the state, hasn’t seen her community or business benefit from that money.

“We’re a dusty little town, and we’re forgotten and ignored,” Wilkes said. “They keep turning to us to support Spaceport financially, but we haven’t seen any of that investment come back.”

Two married women sit next to each other.

Cydney (left) and Val Wilkes sit in front of their motel. The motel is space themed due to Val’s love for science fiction.

Heather Schlitz/Business Insider

She said her business hasn’t seen a bump in tourists or spaceport workers booking rooms, while the town’s infrastructure suffers

Truth or Consequences is a desert town with a declining population of 6,000 that’s ringed by mountains, mesas, and hot springs that drive much of the town’s tourism industry. Despite the surrounding area’s natural beauty and appeal to tourists, the town’s unemployment rate hit 11% in 2018, a third of its citizens live in poverty, and a decades-long drought has shrunk nearby Elephant Butte Lake to 7% of its original capacity, endangering both the tourism and agricultural industries. 

Though Sunday’s launch heightened optimism about a nascent space-tourism industry benefitting their town, Wilkes is wary of Virgin Galactic’s estimate that 400 flights to the edge of space will take off from Truth or Consequences every year starting in 2022. Virgin Galactic has been promising the town’s business owners for years that Spaceport America will generate hundreds of thousands of visitors, but the influx of tourists and money has yet to come, Wilkes said.

“We’ve been waiting — this has been going on for years,” said Jeffre Dukatt, the owner of a custom T-shirt store in Truth or Consequences. “Everybody’s excited but apprehensive. 200 million is a lot of money that we pay to support them. I hope they take off so we can see the benefits from the millions we’ve invested and the higher tax rate.

So far, the spaceport has barely impacted his business or his town, he said. “It’s just another souvenir that I can sell.”

The town’s city manager, Bruce Swingle, is more bullish about Spaceport America’s impact. While the spaceport has so far created only 20 jobs for the town, he said he expects Sierra County to see $500,000 in revenue from it and expects a jump in tourism once Virgin Galactic starts launching commercial flights. He hopes that space tourists, as well as their family and friends, will also take advantage of the hot springs, hot air ballooning, and nature around the area. 

“Finally the dream is coming true,” he said. “The community is really excited.”

Even if Virgin Galactic meets Branson’s ambitious projection, people are doubtful that Truth or Consequences will see much of the revenue.Wilkes said most Spaceport America workers and tourists stay and spend their money in Las Cruces, a bigger city 80 miles south of Truth or Consequences. The executive director of Spaceport America told KVIA that most of the spaceport’s employees live in Las Cruces.

“Las Cruces is going to be set to get the lion’s share of the revenue, but we’ll get a percentage of that and that’s good for the community.”