Amid southern New Mexico’s empty desert and tiny towns is the world’s first airport designed for commercial space travel.
By Maggie Kielpinski
Cutting-edge exploration seems to come naturally to New Mexico. Besides being one of the first places to entertain European explorers in North America (in 1598, Juan de Onate led 500 settlers and soldiers to settle New Mexico), the first atomic bomb was tested here in 1945, at White Sands Missile Range. Less than 170 miles to the east lies “the alien capital of the world,” Roswell, a town whose street lights resemble glowing aliens.
In a bid to get in on what surely will be the wave of the future and will hopefully bring employment to an area sorely in need of economic relief, the state of New Mexico has poured $218.5 million into the construction of Spaceport America, the first commercial spaceport in the world. It opened in 2011.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant. From here, anyone who can afford the $250,000 price tag might one day experience the adventure of a lifetime: a 2½ hour flight into space and back. Branson’s first commercial flight has yet to take place, but the dream lives on, with each step getting closer to Virgin Galactic’s goal: “to become the spaceline for Earth.”
Curious tourists and those for whom the Final Frontier sounds like a siren call can see for themselves how this groundbreaking venture will unfold. Just sign up for a tour of Spaceport with Follow the Sun Inc.
I climbed aboard a van and sat next to a couple from Singapore. We were all toasty warm even as an icy wind outside rattled the vehicle. We rode through the vast grasslands at the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert in southern New Mexico. An early winter storm drove sheets of cold rain across the vast plain ahead of us, and it did lend a certain drama to this landscape, which has witnessed so many history-making events. The peaks of the San Andres Mountains that frame the eastern edge of this high desert sported a fine dusting of snow. I glanced at my companions, curious about their take on this Wild West landscape, the land of Billy the Kid and Kit Carson, so vastly different from the steel and concrete island that is Singapore. In the hour that it took to reach Spaceport America, our guide gave us the condensed version of the area’s considerable history.
The Spaceport tour starts from the visitors center in Truth or Consequences, a small town approximately 150 miles south of Albuquerque along Interstate 25. The new visitors center opened in June 2015 to much fanfare. Curious travelers who may not even take the tour bus out to Spaceport America will find it of interest.
While you’re there, check out T or C, as the town is known locally. It has seen many incarnations. The town sits atop a natural aquifer of hot mineral water. (It was incorporated as Hot Springs, but it was renamed after a radio game show in 1950.) For ages, the Mimbres and Apache Indians soaked in the healing mud along the Rio Grande, and it’s been a spa town of sporadic popularity since the early 20th century. The affordability of housing in T or C today — a small, two-bedroom, one-bath vintage cottage will set you back a fraction of what it would cost in many other places — has attracted a smattering of artists and artisans. Vintage mid-century motor courts in the “bathhouse district” have been re-imagined as spa retreats, painted in dressy New Mexico jewel tones. The Geronimo Springs Museum is exceptional for a town of this size, with an outstanding collection of local ranching and Indian artifacts.
The tour bus stopped briefly at Elephant Butte Dam. A lingering drought has left strata, in various shades of pastel, on the surrounding buttes, but the dam remains a popular camping and boating getaway. When it was created in 1916, the dam’s storage capacity was exceeded only by the Aswan Dam in Egypt.
We continued on through open range that has not changed in eons, as wild and lovely as the pampas of Patagonia. A pair of mule deer bounded across the road ahead, and a lone coyote eyed us with magnificent indifference as we approached Engle.
There is not much left of this tiny town. It was founded in 1879 as a station of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, from which cattle and ore were shipped. The population swelled from 1911 to 1916 with the construction of the dam and then subsided just as quickly. By 1945 it was once again just one more lonely outpost along the Jornada del Muerto. But like T or C, this, too, is changing. Today Engle is the headquarters of Ted Turner’s Armendaris Ranch.
A former Spanish land grant, all 550 square miles of the Armendaris is one of three massive land holdings that Turner (one of the largest private land owners in the United States) has in New Mexico. Big animals roam these almost fenceless tracts: bison, elk, deer, and bighorn sheep. Although the focus is on research and conservation, a limited amount of hunting tags are issued each year for various game animals. It pays the bills. Turner is also developing an ecotourism program of bird watching and animal viewing, photography, and hiking managed from his Sierra Grande Lodge in Truth or Consequences. Besides producing bison meat for sale, the ranch has become a well-known research center for endangered species and a prolific breeding environment for mule deer, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn.
Crossing the railroad tracks, we turned right into the Jornada del Muerto. Evidence of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (the Royal Road of the Interior Land) is all but wiped out except for the occasional deep scouring of wagon wheel tracks. Along this trail, an ancient trade route of the Anasazi people, Juan de Onate’s band of Franciscans, soldiers, and settlers migrated to eventually settle in Santa Fe. And it’s also along this trail, in 1680, that angry Puebloans routed these Spanish usurpers back to Mexico City.
The origin of the name Jornada del Muerto, which is best translated as “Dead Man’s Route,” is unclear, but the fact that there was no reliable water source to be found — except for a spring five miles off the trail, or the ancient tinajas (potholes) that captured the runoff from monsoon rains in late summer — might have something to do with it. This 90-mile-long shortcut avoided the impassable canyons of the Rio Grande. The Camino has been designated a National Historic Trail. It is now managed by the National Park Service and may be accessed at various points along Interstate 25.
Upon approach, Spaceport, located at the end of a long, paved road, appears otherworldly, something out of a Jetsons cartoon. The Gateway to Space itself resembles a giant bird resting on the desert floor, awaiting liftoff. On close-up inspection, the environmentally efficient building morphs from its earthen berms, designed to mitigate the energy used for cooling and heating. It gradually grows to a three-story super-hangar with a curved glass front that reflects the San Andres Mountains. The gently undulating roof is fitted with solar panels and skylights. Inside is a gallery for visitors with views into the hangar and out to the runway. This is also where would-be astronauts will undertake their training.
So far, approximately 700 people have forked over the $250,000 for Virgin Galactic’s 2½-hour ride in space. But it won’t be a cakewalk for them. Three days of rigorous training at the center will prepare them for the g-forces and lack of gravity they will experience aboard SpaceShipTwo. This reusable passenger spacecraft is designed to launch from a mother ship called WhiteKnightTwo once the carrier reaches an altitude of 50,000 feet. The passenger craft’s rockets will send it 62 miles from Earth, beyond the Karman line, the official boundary of space.
At that point, passengers will see the curvature of the Earth and experience weightlessness and the blackness of space. Such an undertaking is not easy; the first launch date has been delayed many times. Since it’s all in the name of caution, it’s good news for future travelers that Branson will not be rushed. “We will go when we are ready,” he said.
Regardless of the setbacks with Virgin Galactic, Spaceport America has seen plenty of activity. This past November, its 24th rocket launch took place — a new UP Aerospace SpaceLoft rocket, the fourth launch from Spaceport with NASA Flight Opportunities Program payloads.
And with the opening of the new Gateway Gallery displays and exhibits in June 2015, the Spaceport has more to see and do. This visitor experience center includes the “G-Shock” simulator ride. Other exhibits help visitors learn about space flight and satellites. And the life-size replica of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is awe-inspiring.
After a photo op in front of the giant, glass-sided hangar, our guide, with great flamboyance and fanfare, dusted our van for stray gravel gathered on the way to Spaceport and drove out onto the apron. Pausing at the runway, in a loony, tongue-in-cheek impression of a pilot, he asked permission to taxi, and we were off. Since it’s doubtful that I will ever be able to afford a trip into space, it felt like the next best thing.
Virgin Galactic’s setbacks have been unforeseen and sometimes tragic (an October 2014 test flight resulted in an accident that killed one pilot and injured the other). But, as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Did Lewis and Clark turn back when faced with portage around the great falls? While I’m no space geek, I loved the adventure into the wilderness, being witness to a dream in the making, a peek into the uber-tourism of the future. I’m looking forward to the day when I can witness the first liftoff of the ultimate in adventure travel and say, “I’ve been there.”
Spaceport America Visitor Center
301 S. Foch St.
Truth or Consequences, NM 87901
Tours depart from the visitors center and are offered in the morning Thursday through Monday, and also on weekend afternoons during summer. Visit the website or call for a schedule.