The mere notion of personal and commercial spaceflight is enough to send anyone’s imagination into orbit. But, when you stand on the site of New Mexico’s publicly owned Spaceport America, the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport, the visions quickly become an exciting reality.
Through special preview tours, visitors are allowed exclusive access to the Spaceport during its current preoperational phase, giving them an up close and personal encounter with the coming of the Second Space Age.
To understand just how far Spaceport America has come, it’s important to go back to the early 1990s when a group of space-minded New Mexicans saw the potential future of the commercial space industry. They joined together to form the Southwest Space Task Force to promote the State of New Mexico as a location to develop an FAA-approved spaceport.
The group identified an 18,000-acre parcel of state land in the southern part of New Mexico, approximately thirty miles from the town of Truth or Consequences, as a potential site for the facility. Later, negotiations began with the winner of the 2004 Ansari X PRIZE competition, Virgin Galactic, to become a tenant at the proposed spaceport. Virgin Galactic’s interest in the location was due to several factors: stable weather, dry climate, low population density around the area, congestion-free, restricted airspace shared with neighboring White Sands Missile Range, altitude (at 4,600 feet above sea level, nearly the first mile of vertical space travel is “free”), and a long local history of spaceflight pioneering and innovation.
The New Mexico State Legislature subsequently enacted laws providing for Spaceport America and Virgin Galactic signed a twenty-year lease agreement with the state, establishing its operation headquarters at Spaceport America. A groundbreaking ceremony was held on June 19, 2009 and the following year, the runway or “Spaceway” as it is called, was dedicated.
Flash forward to the present where there is now a completed terminal hangar facility, the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space,” a 12,000 foot runway and a 15,000 square-foot Spaceport Operations Center on the site. To date, there have been numerous vertical launches at Spaceport America and its roster of fee-based customers include Armadillo Aerospace, UP Aerospace, NASA, MOOG FTS and Lockheed Martin.
Though there is still more construction to come with Phase Two, which will include the development of a public visitor experience in the town of Truth or Consequences, as well as on the main spaceport campus, visitors currently have the opportunity to get an advanced look at the future of commercial space travel on a preview tour offered by Follow the Sun. It’s a unique experience that takes you on a journey through time, as your guide regales you with the history and evolution of transportation and trade in the American continent from the Spanish and Native American pioneers of the past to the space pioneers of the future.
Along the way to the Spaceport, you’ll have views of the rugged ranges of New Mexico’s Old West and learn about this distinctive environment. The scenery’s stark beauty is mesmerizing and provides many a Kodak moment. You’ll travel past Elephant Butte Dam, a concrete monolith and engineering achievement from the last century, created to control the then-wild Rio Grande River.
At one time, it had bragging rights as the largest dam in the country and the second largest in the world. You’ll also skirt the edges of Ted Turner’s expansive 356,000-acre Armendaris Ranch with its noted Chihuahuan Desert grasslands. The media mogul and one of the top private landowners in the U.S. purchased the historic ranch twenty years ago. Story has it that he wanted to purchase enough property to be able to ride a horse from the Canadian border to Mexico without ever having to leave his land.
As the tour progresses, history continues to come alive with tales of the Spanish “Royal Road,” the highway that connected this region to Mexico City during much of the colonial period. From the late 1500s until the latter part of the 17th century, Spanish Conquistadores used this trail along with Native Americans.
Later, the first U.S. explorers and militias traveled the same passageway to navigate the southwest. The conversation then shifts from the past to the present with a discussion about why New Mexico makes the ideal locale for space access. For many, it will be a surprise to hear that the state has a long tradition of being first when it comes to space. Men like Robert Goddard, Wernher von Braun, Col. John Stapp and Capt. Joseph Kittinger all made their mark in New Mexico as aerospace pioneers.
Today, it’s all about “NewSpace,” also referred to as entrepreneurial space, where the players are wealthy and successful entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos, Paul Allen and Richard Branson, who are pouring their money into the next space age. After about an hour, the Spaceport structures begin to emerge and the excitement becomes palpable inside the bus.
The iconic Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space Building is something out of a “Star Wars” movie with its sleek and ultramodern design that gives it an otherworldly appearance. The 120,000 square-foot structure, a combined terminal and hangar facility, is the work of renowned British industrial architect, Sir Norman Foster, along with URS Corporation and local New Mexico architects SMPC. It meets LEED Gold standards for environmental quality and is sustainable with few additional energy requirements.
The building will eventually house up to two Virgin Galactic WhiteKnightTwo and five SpaceShipTwo vehicles. The WhiteKnightTwo is the largest all-carbon composite aviation vehicle ever built and the most fuel efficient of its size, capable of carrying a payload of around 35,000 pounds to an altitude of about 50,000 feet.
The SpaceShipTwo will carry six passengers and two pilots and be powered by a hybrid rocket motor, enabling the pilots to shut down the motor at any time during its operation and glide safely back to the runway. With a 90 inch diameter cabin, passengers will have maximum room to float in zero gravity, along with plenty of windows to see the spectacular views.
The Gateway to Space Building will additionally contain all of the company’s astronaut prep and celebration facilities, a mission control center and a friends and family area, as well as designated space for public access. Though visitors are not currently allowed inside the building, they are permitted to stand on the apron in front of the stunning structure and spend time oohing and aahing over this incredible marvel.
The tour also takes you to the Spaceport Ops Center, where you can actually go inside and get a behind-the-scenes look at the hub of operational activity. And then, you’ll get to take a thrilling cruise down the Spaceway, the main runway that will one day soon welcome returning astronauts.
The first commercial passengers to take a ride into space will be Virgin Galactic owner Richard Branson and his two children. Rumor has it that this historic voyage might take place in the upcoming year. Thus far, there are several hundred people worldwide who have booked their place in space, plunking down a hefty deposit for the $250,000 trip. Included on the list of modern day Magellans are such celebs as Leo DiCaprio, Ashton Kutcher and Justin Bieber. For those of us without deep pockets, the preview tour is a heady and memorable experience in and of itself.
If you go:
Spaceport America Preview Tours are operated exclusively by Follow the Sun.
Tours are app. 3.5 hours in length and depart from the towns of Elephant Butte and Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
Cost: $29 - $59 pp