In the wilderness of New Mexico, set in the dry, scrubby desert under a crystalline pale blue sky, is a construction site with a bombastic and cartoonish name, incomplete but already a monument to the hubris of interstellar exploration or maybe to tax-payer financed public-private partnerships of indeterminate future success.
Spaceport America, a beautiful collection of Googie-inspired hangars and control centers at the foot of the San Andres Mountains, will soon be the fully operational home of Virgin Galactic, the Richard Branson-backed tourism concern that plans to shoot rich people into sub-orbital space for $200,000 a ride.
The Spaceport could be the next Cape Canaveral, drawing tourists and geeks to see the future of manned (and unmanned) American space exploration. It could be a massive government boondoggle, a wasted $209 million investment that never pays back the people of New Mexico who financed its construction. Or it could be something entirely different. So I drove north out of Las Cruces to see it for myself.
My guide for the trip, David Wilson, a spokesman for the Spaceport, met me early in the morning in Las Cruces, before the sun started pummeling southern New Mexico with heat. In the cool air, refueling our SUVs before the trek into the desert, he filled me in on the back story of the Spaceport.
With open airspace and rocket scientists aplenty–White Sands Missile Range is just 30 minutes from Las Cruces–the Spaceport is seen by boosters as a job-creation engine in a state badly in need of high-paying, high-tech jobs. As a launch facility, the Spaceport has already hosted 13 rocket launches, even as construction continues on the main terminal, where Virgin Galactic will run its consumer-friendly show.
David and I drive north, turning off the interstate onto an improved dirt road toward Upham, New Mexico, a whistle stop ghost town that’s still on maps, despite having been abandoned by its few residents. We ford mud holes, drive through ranches, steer around cattle and eventually roll up to a guard shack that looks like something out of X-Files. There are a few high clouds in the sky and the heat is already building as our names are ticked off a very imposing clipboard.
Visitor badges in hand, we drive down to the apron, in awe of the main Foster + Partners terminal, in glass and hand-formed steel, cut to mimic the landscape, its pre-weathered finish looking like Richard Serra sculpture turned architectural element. David walks me through the site, where visitors can watch Virgin astronauts prepping for missions, where launch commanders will monitor spaceflights, where offices of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority will soon be located, where the fuel dump sits, isolated safely off in the distance, nowhere near the multi-million dollar 10,000-foot runway that could service the Space Shuttle, if it still flew.
It feels small, this place in the desert where grand dreams are soon meant to thrive. It’s certainly more intimate than Kennedy Space Center, where many spectators–myself included–consider themselves lucky to be 10 miles from the launch pad. But can it, and its silly name, really inspire us the way JFK and Alan Shepard and the Saturn V and the Space Shuttle did?
NASA administrator Charles Bolden says his agency is committed “to continuing human spaceflight and taking the necessary–and difficult–steps to ensure America’s leadership in human spaceflight for years to come.” But Spaceport America, almost complete and planning its first manned Virgin Galactic spaceflight, asks us if the private sector can do it better. They just need a $209 million investment from New Mexico to get off the ground.