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California and the West

Promise of Spaceport Sparks Hope in Desert

Development: NASA project could bring thousands of jobs to parched area near Harper Dry Lake. Critics question state's planned tax incentives.


HINKLEY — Mostly because it made him feel better, Bryan Pappas used to chuckle that his adopted town of Hinkley, stranded in the desert on the rim of Harper Dry Lake, wasn't quite the end of the Earth. "But you could sure see it from there," he said.

Suddenly, the view is more complex.

To some, it is bright with the promise of space exploration--because NASA may base the next generation of spaceships here, bringing thousands of jobs and an economic spark. To others, it is dimmed by concerns that the government is giving away too much to lure the spaceport, and that this remote outpost will be plagued with poverty forever.

The coming years will be telling ones in the area surrounding Harper Dry Lake, a desert hodgepodge of dried-up alfalfa farms, clandestine methamphetamine labs, junked rail cars and roadside signs offering "free potbelly pigs." And the fate of the spaceport will help answer tough questions about how far California should go to rekindle its image as the nation's cradle of aerospace.

Late last month, NASA and Lockheed Martin Space Systems resuscitated a long-troubled but ambitious project dubbed VentureStar.

The craft, designed to eclipse the space shuttle, would take off like a rocket but land like a plane, require no crew and have a turnaround time on the ground of less than a week. Engineers hope it will make commercial space travel, including tourism, affordable and commonplace.

The project had been on hold this summer after experimental fuel tanks on a half-size prototype, known as the X-33, broke apart during a test run. But instead of scrapping the VentureStar, officials will switch to tried-and-tested aluminum fuel tanks and press ahead with the project, said Evan McCollum, a Lockheed Martin spokesman in Denver.

That decision sent a shot of energy through this region. The project is now running on a slower schedule--the X-33 isn't expected to fly before 2003, and it would be years longer before the VentureStar is ready. But Harper Dry Lake, about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert, remains California's only entry in the VentureStar sweepstakes.

Fourteen other states, including Florida and Texas, have competing bids to host a VentureStar base that would cost between $3 billion and $5 billion, and could mean as many as 3,000 permanent and temporary jobs.

State and local officials say Harper Dry Lake is a front-runner. McCollum wouldn't address that directly, but said the dry lake's assets--including its elevation of 3,000 feet above sea level and its friendly weather--will be weighed, as well as the cost of building the spaceport. The base would include a launchpad, a runway and a "processing facility"--a garage, essentially, for routine upkeep.

"I'll tell you this much: It would turn that place upside down," said the 41-year-old Pappas.

Like thousands of others, Pappas came to the desert in search of cheap real estate and solitude. When he arrived in 1986, he found those--and little else. He couldn't find a job in the area, and eventually left for Gardnerville, Nev., where he is working as a computer technician.

He still hasn't sold his home in Hinkley, south of Harper Dry Lake in San Bernardino County, largely because it wouldn't fetch more than $15,000, he said. Hinkley is known outside the area for only one thing--pollution. It was the site of the Chromium 6 contamination that led to a $333-million judgment against Pacific Gas & Electric, dramatized in the film "Erin Brockovich."

"I'm a smart person, and I could not eke out a living up there," said Pappas, who hopes the space base development would create a market for his home. "There is no place to go but up."

Small Farms Once Thrived Near Lake

That wasn't always true.

Harper Dry Lake, for the most part, lives up to its name, and is a vast bowl of dry mud covered with a layer of salt that makes it shine white under the desert sun most days.

But an unusual marsh on its southwest tip offered enough water, not only for a remarkable bird sanctuary, teeming with marsh wrens, American bitterns and raptors, but also for a small cluster of farms that thrived there around the beginning of the last century.

In the 1920s, however, two giant cattle-and-alfalfa farms opened, and because they needed so much water to operate, "they sucked everybody dry," said Tom Egan, the lead wildlife biologist in the Bureau of Land Management's nearby Barstow office.

Without enough water, the smaller farms began folding, followed by the stores that supplied them. More recently, military base closings seemed to seal the area's economic fate.

Developers and local officials have mounted a scrappy campaign to land industry in the region, targeting warehouse operations and distribution centers. Still, Barstow's motto--"The Crossroads of Opportunity," adopted because the city rests at the intersection of interstates 15 and 40--seems long on hope and short on reality.

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