Two weeks in the West

by Jonathan Thompson

James Doohan, the actor who played “Scotty” on Star Trek, always dreamed of traveling into space. Finally, on April 28, his dream came true. Doohan, along with astronaut Gordon Cooper and 200 others, blasted off in a rocket from the southern New Mexico desert, passed briefly into space and then parachuted back to Earth. For Doohan and his fellow passengers, the thrill may have been dampened by the fact that they were dead and cremated — each just a few grams of ashes encased in shiny, bullet-like vials.

But for officials with Spaceport America, the blastoff was a step towards their ultimate goal of being a departure point for space tourists — live ones, that is.

Though the spaceport’s public relations material admits that the concept has been plagued in the past by the “snicker” factor, the facility seems to be on its way to reality. In early April, voters in Doña Ana County narrowly approved a tax that will raise some $49 million for the planned spaceport, now little more than a 100-by-25-foot concrete pad. The day before Doohan’s launch, spaceport officials called for architectural firms to bid on the 100,000-square-foot terminal and hangar facilities.

New Mexicans have a love/hate relationship with the spaceport. Supporters, among them Gov. Bill Richardson, D, see it as a way to diversify the economy in the southern part of the state, which is already home to White Sands Missile Range and Roswell, the mother ship for UFO watchers. Critics think it will be a carbon-spewing boondoggle catering to the ennui-stricken ultra-rich.

The ultra-rich part may be right — spaceline tickets for the living will cost $100,000 or more. But even the middle class can afford the flight once they’re cremated. For a launch like Scotty’s, Houston-based Space Services charges just $495 (other services include depositing ashes on the moon for $12,500, or sending a couple’s remains into deep space for $67,500). Riding alongside Scotty were personal photos, returned, for a fee, to their owners after touchdown; commemorative pins; vegetable seeds for distributing to schoolchildren to encourage their interest in science; and a CD of “space ceremonial music” by the Russian band Cyclotimia.

Spaceport officials hope the facility will be fully operational by 2010.

 

Perhaps a few northern spotted owls can hitch a ride on the next space flight, which may be a safer bet than sticking around on Earth under a new recovery plan. Last summer, a spotted owl plan was hammered out by a diverse group of stakeholders, and then submitted to the White House for review. But instead of just signing off on it, the administration sent it to an “Oversight Committee” in Washington made up of high-level Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture officials. They rejected it.

Six months and quite a few edits later, the draft plan was released. It contained two options for the feds to choose from: The first is a slightly watered-down version of the original; the second is even weaker than that.

The biggest difference between the pre- and post-tinkered-with plans has to do with protecting areas for habitat. The first option would set aside defined conservation areas of old growth, but still gives land managers some leeway to diminish the size of these areas in the future. The second option gives no defined areas, and instead sets some guidelines and then allows land managers flexibility in drawing the boundaries of habitat blocks.

That “turns over the crayons to land managers,” says Dominick DellaSala of the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy, “but the bigger concern is it also gives them the eraser.” DellaSala’s group estimates that a liberal use of that eraser could result in the owl losing up to 2.4 million acres that would otherwise be protected under the original plan.

Also to be erased — with the help of shotguns — are hundreds of barred owls, an invasive species and a threat to the spotted owl.

 

“Any country that is worth defending is worth preserving.” So goes the credo of the Veterans Conservation Corps, which was started two years ago in Washington state. Under the program, veterans do volunteer work on environmental projects such as stream restoration.

Now, thanks to a bill just passed by Washington lawmakers, the program has grown to give shell-shocked vets returning from Iraq or Afghanistan college training in environmental vocations. Participants in the 10-month program will receive a monthly stipend while they work toward an environmental certificate from a community college.

Meanwhile, the veterans — some struggling to adjust to civilian life — will receive what boosters call “eco-therapy.” Both the vets and the environment get some healing during the work, says Mark Fischer, Veterans Conservation coordinator.

Currently, there are some 250 volunteers working on projects. The environmental certificate program will have space for 30-40 vets, says Fischer, who expects the slots to be filled quickly.

© High Country News