By SAM MARKWELL
New Mexico snuck into national pop-culture headlines last week following the announcement that Lady Gaga is scheduled to launch from Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport America in 2015. A gaggle of celebrities— including Simon Cowell, Justin Bieber Ashton Kucher, and Brad Pitt—have already booked suborbital flights. But Gaga’s aim is labor, not leisure. Gaga will be performing a song in suborbital flight, which will be part of the Zero G Colony event, billed as a “high-tech music festival.” Us magazine reports that the event will be “like nothing the world has seen before.” To prepare, Lady Gaga will undergo a month of voice training to prepare for suborbital conditions. She has even taken out a life insurance policy to secure her life’s monetary value in the event of her demise.
There is little press out about the Zero G Colony musical festival, but presumably it will be an event featuring wealthy artists performing their crafts in space. The name of the event was probably cooked up by people for whom “colony” signifies outer space futurism and not the political-economic context of settler colonialism in New Mexico. The fact that it actually signifies both points out how the high-tech avant-garde traffics in the tired-yet-enduring symbolic repertoire of colonialism. Of course, associating colonialism with the past would be a mistake, as the high-tech military-industrial facilities throughout New Mexico and the U.S. are nothing if not colonial outposts. The frontier may be imagined differently, but Spaceport America—whose website once featured a Conquistador helmet next to a Spaceport America hardhat—is just one more enterprise that is grounded in a “pioneer” mentality.
New Mexico expended funds from the state budget to build Spaceport America, and the Zero G Colony event’s financial revenues (which ostensibly benefit the public at large) are precisely what counts as the economic development for which the public is footing the bill. It seems unlikely that such developments will do much to ease unemployment rates or economic duress in the nearby rural communities and Mescalero Indian reservation. Sir Richard Branson’s ability to harness the state of New Mexico to his entrepreneurial endeavor demonstrates the power of wealth. Spaceport flights can fetch from $100,000 to $250,000 per customer. With a reported 600 buyers in line at a sum total of $80,000,000, the project is on its way to producing a return on its $209,000,000 price tag. So while Virgin Galactic will accumulate this money, the change spent along the way at “local” businesses constitutes the public’s share. If we take the Spaceport at its word, we should recognize that this whole endeavor is not so much about profit, as it is about doing the best job of fulfilling the desires of “everyone”: “Spaceport America is the world’s first purpose-built, commercial spaceport, designed to enable affordable, efficient and effective space access and unlock the potential of space for everyone.” While one’s economic background does not determine whether one desires to be blasted into suborbital space for pleasure, it certainly determines one’s ability to actually purchase the exorbitantly priced tickets that Spaceport America claims are “affordable.”
In the manifesto for the new La Jicarita, David Correia wrote about expanding the horizons of La Jicarita’s coverage, “because environmental politics in the new millennium often comes disguised as neoliberal economic development such as the New Mexico Spaceport. Indeed, because the boondoggle and potential environmental catastrophe of the Spaceport in southern New Mexico, a project that as far as we can tell appears designed solely to blast rich people into space, is emblematic of New Mexico’s new economic development strategy—and thus our collective environmental future—we must chart a different path to understand the relationship between economy and nature.” Now, a few years in to the tenure of the new La Jicarita, the hubbub around the Zero G Colony should prompt us to pay attention to the absurdity we are witnessing. Stay tuned for more on Spaceport America and what it is telling us about the horizons of economic development in New Mexico.