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October 15, 2018

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LAS VEGAS AT LARGE:

Check written in boom times bought ticket for space flight

Anticipation of adventure helped developer through market’s plunge

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Steve Marcus

A model of Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo appears on the computer screen last week in Ken Baxter’s office. The Las Vegas condo conversion developer will be the first ticketed passenger on the ship as it takes off into space sometime next year. Baxter’s ticket for the five-, maybe eight-minute ride cost him $200,000.

Beyond the Sun

Back in the boom days of real estate, Ken Baxter was the king of selling condo conversions, a real hot shot. But the past 2 1/2 years have been horrible for his business, so why is he smiling? Because sometime next year, thanks to a $200,000 check he wrote in 2005, he plans to blast into space onboard Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo. For about five minutes, maybe eight if he’s lucky, Baxter will be an astronaut, floating weightless.

Baxter is 60, meaning he’s old enough to remember the Mercury missions of the early ’60s that launched the first Americans into earth orbit. It got to him.

“Ever since I was a kid, kinda secretly, you know, I thought about how cool it would be to go to outer space,” Baxter says.

“But as I got older, I reconciled myself to it never happening — stopped thinking about it.”

That changed on a Sunday night in the fall of 2004. Baxter was watching “60 Minutes,” which was airing a story on the X Prize, a $10 million prize to be awarded for the first private venture to launch the same manned craft into space twice in two weeks.

The winning craft, SpaceShipOne, dropped from a plane and rocketed more than 62 miles over the surface of the earth, breaching into suborbital space flying under a black sky. It now hangs in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The company that built the craft, “60 Minutes” reported, had been contracted by British billionaire businessman and adventurer Richard Branson to produce more ships for a space tourism business he would call, modestly, Virgin Galactic.

“I didn’t hesitate. I saw that and said I was going to be the first one to go up,” Baxter recalls.

The Monday morning after he saw the spaceship on television, Baxter had his secretary call Virgin Airways and get Branson on the phone. She left a message. Branson called back.

The next year, Baxter wrote a large check and became Virgin Galactic’s first ticketed passenger.

The check was a stretch at the time, Baxter says, but then his business (and the rest of Las Vegas real estate) went on a two year tear and filled the bank account.

His company, Performance Marketing Associates, used to employ 150 people in an office larger than most single-family homes. Now it employs two people in a rented suite in a business center, its bookshelves filled with real estate manuals, Donald Trump books, a copy of “Dianetics,” and a more recent book lying on a desk, “The Great Depression Ahead: How to Prosper in the Crash Following the Greatest Boom in History.”

“The last 2 1/2 years have been ... unbelievable. That’s a good word: unbelievable,” Baxter says. Other words he uses are “death” and “just awful.”

But Baxter is bullish, saying he believes the housing market has finally hit bottom and is poised to rebound. He cites the 40,000 new homes he has closed deals on since he moved to Las Vegas in 1990. He says he’ll soon begin selling new homes at a Summerlin subdivision and the homes will be priced to compete with foreclosures. And he still goes on safaris and deep sea fishing trips.

None of that compares to the prospect of space travel, brief though it may be. He’s already cleared his physical and experienced a six-G-force training session in a centrifuge, which he says was like having a 1,200 pound baby elephant sit on your chest. It’s been a lot of fun.

“I’ve never been so excited about anything in my life,” Baxter says.

Besides:

“I was the very first one who sent his money in and I think that should buy me a trip.”

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