October 10, 2005

X Prize Cup Week Ends in New Mexico

LAS CRUCES, N.M. -- Several thousand space enthusiasts swarmed to the city's airport for a glimpse of a future in which you might just as easily book a rocket to space as you would a plane to Las Vegas.

The final day of X Prize Cup Week in New Mexico on Sunday drew a throng of would-be astronauts, entrepreneurs and curiosity seekers. They milled about the wind-swept airport grounds transformed for the afternoon into a Tomorrowland-type theme park.

The organizers' goals were to show off what clever things entrepreneurs are doing to get into space, and to promote the X Prize Cup, a weeklong competition scheduled to begin in southern New Mexico next year. The contest will include a rocket race that backers pitch as a NASCAR event in three dimensions.

State officials, including Gov. Bill Richardson, are hoping that rocket races and space tourism will one day be a major part of the economy in New Mexico, a place that boasts the needed clear skies, wide open spaces and abundant controlled air space. They successfully bid to host the X Prize Cup, a spinoff of the $10 million Ansari X Prize, which was won last October by SpaceShipOne, which blasted into space two times in five days from a California desert.

Sunday's event in Las Cruces was considered a dress rehearsal for next year's larger event, and a barometer for how the public would respond. Some complained of too much hype, but it also drew some raves.

"It's a way to get me connected to the big picture, see what concepts people are trying out," said Ryan Sloan, a 26-year-old student from Albuquerque who was waiting in line to get an autograph from NASA astronaut Ken Cockrell.

Sloan said he'd be a willing space tourist. "But if they can't strap me into a rocket today, at least I can hear the message and shake the hands of people who have done it," he said.

Rick Homans, the state's economic development secretary, called the day "the successful launch of a whole new industry in the state."

The highlights were the live demonstrations of rockets, although long lines formed between launches for hands-on exhibits, including a computer simulated rocket ride. Inside a big white tent, entrepreneurs pitched everything from robotic pets to colonization maps for Mars.

In a brief talk, Cockrell described for the crowd what it's like to see a sunrise from outer space.

"It just stops you, takes away all your stress, and the beauty just washes over you," he said.