Bob & Wendy’s Galactic Adventures at Spaceport America
Near Las Cruces New Mexico by Bob Root
New Mexico, The Land of Enchantment the license plates and signs say!
As the Christmas Holiday approaches my days have slowed a bit allowing me to reflect and breath.
My day today began as usual with a cup of home brewed coffee made with our high tech Aeropress seated at my computer scanning new emails. A vendor offered a real-deal on a piece of gear I have wanted, so I called them to get my order in right away. As I placed the order the gal asked for the shipping address. I said 1200 Rear Drive……..Las Cruces. She said can you spell that and I did. She said…..and the State? I said New Mexico! She said Oh, wait a minute. I am sorry sir; this offer is not available outside the US. I laughed and explained that we are a part of the union and that New Mexico is the place between Texas and Arizona.
Yet another funny incident that Wendy and I have experienced in our love for this great State. It did cause me to reflect for a few moments on the pace of our society and what we seem to find important or not!
What is the New Mexico allure for us? Some believe it is because this is the place we met along the Pecos River near Santa Fe. I guess that is a part of it. Some believe it is because this is the place we were married near Taos. Others who know us very well know that it is because it is the land of innovation. Big Time Innovation and that is what it makes it the land of enchantment for us. Along with her people and history, New Mexico continues to inspire and lead us.
If you look back in history and trek around New Mexico you will find out so much that little know about this state. Being a Geek, the tech history abounds. Beginning with the Manhattan Project, a UFO crash in Roswell, the evolution of Los Alamos National Labs, Sandia, Alamogordo, White Sands and hundreds of other projects, you might wonder, “What’s Next?”
What do the Trinity site, Ted Turner, Richard Branson, Governor Bill Richardson, (yes, the Bill Richardson) Burt Rutan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown (not the Jerry Brown) all have in common? Space Travel New Mexico style!
On December 12, 2009, Wendy and I boarded a custom bus in a town called Truth or Consequences. Named for the old game show, T or C is closest to Las Cruces on Interstate 25 south of Albuquerque. Small and sleepy, they do not comprehend what is about to hit them.
Our host Jerry Brown began to talk about the history and how the spaceport is the only area in America with a base to unlimited flight clearance. As we drove east, he explained that this is the only place that you can take off and go into space without restricted air clearances. How come we wondered? Who had this foresight or was it a part of a bigger plan.
As we passed Elephant Butte we entered the Armendaris Ranch owned by, you guessed it, Ted Turner. This vast 358,643-acre ranch lies in south central New Mexico and contains some of the most pristine Chihuahuan desert grassland in the Southwest. Its Fra Cristobal Mountain range is home to a reintroduced population of desert bighorn sheep, and the Bolson’s tortoise has recently been reintroduced to its grasslands – both species are managed by the Turner Endangered Species Fund. Other large mammals on the ranch include bison, pronghorn, desert mule deer, cougar and oryx. The volcanic crater at Armendaris is a migratory sanctuary for one of the largest Mexican free-tailed bat populations in North America.
As we drove through the ranch, we stopped at various locations to hear the history of the area from local historian, Jerry Brown. No doubt, Jerry knows more about this area than probably anyone. And he has a couple of special connections to this project. As a rancher, his property borders Spaceport America. Even more special is that Dr. Jerry Brown trained astronauts for NASA. Retiring, New Mexico style, a few years ago, it was our special privilege to receive a personally guided tour by this special man of the land, history and the new Spaceport America.
Have you heard what is going on here? Hello!!! We are going into space with the first commercial flights beginning as early as a year from now. Yes one year….2010….December!
As we reached the main Armendaris ranch offices, we found ourselves in a town called Engle New Mexico. At Engle, we turned south on a new highway to accommodate the huge trucks and earth movers that continue to arrive daily. As we headed south we passed through another town named Cutter and drove toward Upham. Jerry told us that these towns had been named for the engineers that piloted the steam trains along the only north-south rail in New Mexico. The same tracks that delivered equipment for an equally momentous big hairy audacious goal, The Atomic Bomb now carry supplies for another big hairy project called Spaceport America.
You see, New Mexico really is at the center of a lot of neat shit. In fact, much of the technology of Keys was born at Los Alamos, Alamogordo and Sandia National Labs. Not the least of which is our nanotechnology based sunblock, Solar Rx.
Just before Upham, we came upon a security entrance and we were boarded by a neatly dressed guard with a strange patch on his shoulder. It said Virgin Galactic. Young and friendly, he told us that we would be met by a project engineer, that we were free to take pictures and experience something that only a few had seen before us.
As it turns out, Jerry told us that we were one of the first tours and that the Discovery Channel was filming at the Vertical Launch site. I thought, holy shit, they are going to do vertical launches here too? It wasn’t just the massive runway that we were about to see that would launch the Burt Rutan creations from this first commercial space flights from this Spaceport?
We stopped the bus after crossing the center of the runway and we were greeted by a young engineer from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Aaron greeted us with enthusiasm and an openness that we did not expect. Actually, I am not sure what we were expecting and every subsequent experience was more than awesome the one before.
Standing at the edge of the runway, Aaron told us it was thirty (30) yards wide and when complete would be ten thousand feet long. He said it would be grooved and it totaled 28” thick. A layer of a special sand and gravel mixture would be covered by a thick layer of asphalt and then another layer of seamless concrete. I suspected that he was offering the party line because what I was looking at was at least 100 yards wide and from the trip in, if we were indeed standing in the middle of the runway, it will be more like 15,000 feet long. And, if it is grooved like they say, some really fast aircraft will be landing here. This leads me to believe that this space port is going to be used for much more than Virgin Galactic.
There are some ironies in this place. Literally 200 yards from us are the visible remains of the Santa Fe Trail. A sacred place to the Catholic’s, Spaniard’s and various Indian tribes. So sacred and respected that the Spaceport’s hanger terminal will have earthen mounds built in such a way as to hide their view when the followers take their pilgrimages along the trail. I suspect that this is a symbolic gesture as I believe this will become a very busy place with many hotels and structures to house the flyers and visitors.
It is very difficult to describe the intensity of emotions that we felt here. The enthusiasm of all involved, the enormity of the project and the realization that it is just around the corner when common people will be able to buy a ticket to space. And then, what is next. What will happen beyond this grand project? How will history record the early flights? What will people see, hear and feel as the first civilian pioneers ride the wonderfully design space ships that Burt Rutan conceived and built. What else will fly from here and what will arrive here?
What strikes me even more is how few people know of this grand project. I fear and believe that it is because we as a society spend too much time looking for what is wrong and not enough time looking for what is right. To Wendy and I, this is right!
The New Mexican’s I have met and talked to are mostly proud of what is going on out there in the high desert. Even though every citizen of New Mexico is poised to spend $1100.00 each in taxes for it to happen, they seem to have a collective faith that it will bring good with some even saying that it will be the place that will begin to turn-around America. Most do sit and marvel at the negative attitudes “Back East.” Most believe that change will occur in the west where it always has!
For Wendy and me, the experience of seeing this, meeting the young talent building it and feeling the courage and determination of Sir Richard Branson, Burt Rutan and Bill Richardson to make this all happen is inspiring.
Black Sky and The Race for Space
So, let me try to give you an idea as best as I can do about what this will look like, what will happen here and the experiences of the first commercial space travelers leaving earth from Spaceport America.
Sometime around May of 2011 this earth base space port will be fully operational. Cradled between two mountain ranges, will be a long, very flat, very straight and very wide runway. Visitors and flyers will arrive via a beautiful ride through the mountains east of Truth or Consequences or via a new road from the south that approaches through the high valley from Las Cruces. With the Organ Mountains to their right, people will witness one of the most beautiful areas of New Mexico with Buffalo roaming on the road side in herds as large as 800. In front of them will be a modern respectful structure that will first appear simple and clean. The desert brush and landscape will be preserved giving one the sense that there has been not much to disturb this sacred ground.
As they arrive at the terminal hanger, their hearts will race as they prepare to fly or just watch. The children’s whose eyes will be wide with wonderment will become the next dreamers and builders of what will come next here. Inspired by the Star Trek , the builders of this place will be the inspiration and real heroes for which these children will create when they have grown.
I like to tell the story of the brilliant engineer working for Burt Rutan in Mojave California. Jim Tighe was the driving force behind the aerodynamics of SpaceshipOne, the airplane that won the coveted Ansari X Prize. For his achievements, Design News readers have voted him Engineer of the Year. The story I like to tell came from an interview with Jim’s parents. The reporter asked Jim’s mom if he had a security blanket that he carried with him when he was young. She said, well yes… sort of. He carried an extension cord everywhere with him. Inspired by the crew of the starship Enterprise, Jim and his colleges are about to become the inspiration of the next generations.
When the flyer and visitors arrive, they will go into a modern unworldly looking hanger that is also the grand terminal for Virgin Galactic. They will view a film of how this all began in a Disneyesque fashion. They will see the maiden voyage where Sir Richard Branson, his mom, wife and kids along with the family dog joined Burt Rutan on the first flight in 2010. Then it will be their turn for a six hour weightless experience in what is called, “Black Sky!”
Spaceship Two is a larger version of Spaceship One that won the X-Prize for the first reusable spacecraft to make two trips into the Black Sky within a two week period. Now named Eve after Branson’s mum. It will be locked under the center wing of White Knight Two. White Knight will roll from the hanger with Eve in tow. They will taxi down the runway toward the beginning and turn around pointed south. The turbines will spool up and the six passengers on Eve will be in a semi-reclining position as they begin to roll and pick up speed. Smoothly, White Knight will turn up skyward. When they reach launch altitude, White Knight will release Eve and for a moment they will part quietly. Eve will drop away gliding as White Knight turn away releasing Eve to fire her rocket motor.
The quiet will be emotional for these passengers. Then the rocket motor will fire and Eve will thrust forward pushing them into their seats. The horizontal flight will turn vertical and they will speed continually until the rocket motor is extinguished. Again quiet will befall them as they continue through momentum into space. There, they will have time to gaze upon the earth as only a few have experienced. They will see the blue ball with the life giving ozone haze around it below and above the black sky of space. As they unbuckle their seat restraints, they will float and giggle like children. Peering through the windows, they will have an unearthly experience that will probably change their lives forever. Then it will be time to return.
Eve will not carry big heat shields to permit a fiery return to earth like all the space ships that came before her. Actually, she will uplift her wings and morph from a space ship into a shuttlecock and flutter through the atmosphere in total silence. At a prescribed altitude, she will return her wings to a horizontal position and begin her decent as a glider. With White Sands to her right, she will point north. Gliding lower with the Trinity Atomic Bomb site to her right she will begin a slow silent banking turn to the left. The automate ILS system will guide here over the desert and the spirits of all those Conquistadors of centuries gone by. The Buffalo will look upward to see this silent sleek bird on final approach. From the observation deck in the terminal, the next flyers will watch as she lands as quietly as she has flown. Wondering as they prepare to sleep in anticipation of their flight, they will strain to see the faces, tears of emotion and wonderment in the eyes of those returning to mother earth from their Virgin Galactic experience.
Standing on the runway this day in December of 2009, it was easy for me to go back to my childhood. Waiting every last week of every month for my Popular Science magazine to arrive through the mail slot. I would immediately sit down and read it cover to cover often rereading the exploits of the early days of manned space flights. Reading about those heroic astronauts and the guy standing next to me who helped make them heroes, I have always been inspired by space. Like many, I had grown complacent and a bit numb, Messrs. Branson, Rutan and Richardson have inspired me to once again dream the big dreams. Just imagine what it will be like. If it was anything like our experience in these past four hours in the high desert of New Mexico it would be amazing.
And then it was over. Wendy and I in the car headed back to Las Cruces, we decided to forego the freeway and follow the Rio Grande River as it wound south toward our coach parked near Old Town Mesilla. Remembering that it was just a few hundred miles north along the Pecos River that we first met, we realized again that New Mexico is a very special place for us with both history and future.
It is easy for me to envision what it will be like. It is easy to imagine. If it is true that a picture is worth a thousand words, then indeed a movie is worth ten thousand pictures. So here are a couple of simulations of what it might be like.
We plan to return a year from now to see what it looks like and experience some of this for ourselves. If you are so inclined, here is a link to Virgin Galactic where you can book your reservations online for a ride into space.
To learn more about Spaceport America and sign up for one of Jerry’s tours click the link.
All worth the experience and….Just imagine. I can!
More to come!