Imagine sitting in the cockpit of a space vehicle and launching from a two-mile-long runway in the middle of a New Mexico desert. Imagine the heart-pounding, dizzying effect of weightlessness in outer space.
Nothing is left to the imagination at Spaceport America in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Follow along with me and learn about how you can experience a launch, weightlessness, and other fantastic activities at America’s first spaceport.
Final Frontier Tours hosted my husband and me for our Spaceport America tour. However, all opinions are mine. Our work history in the space industry and manned space flight programs enriched our Spaceport America experience.
First: A Note On Virgin Galactic And Astronaut Sturckow
On May 22, 2021, Virgin Galactic successfully completed the first human spaceflight when they launched VSS Unity from the mothership, VMS Eve, in flight. VSS Unity achieved Mach 3, reached space at an altitude of 55.45 miles, and then glided back to Earth on the same runway as the launch. CJ Sturckow, pilot-in-command, and Dave Mackay, controlled VSS Unity, and Kelly Latimer and Michael Masucci piloted VMS Eve. Sturckow is the first person ever to have flown to space from three different states.
Sir Richard Branson is the visionary behind Virgin Galactic. He and his team are responsible for this historic achievement, for helping to create the first commercial spaceport and claim the first human space flight from the spaceport. Branson intends to make space travel as accessible as airplane travel is today.
When I learned of the recent successful flight, I remembered Neil Armstrong’s statement when he landed on the moon. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” This new flight milestone is a significant step forward for Virgin Galactic and human space flight in New Mexico.
1. How To Tour Spaceport America And Important Things To Know
The first purpose-built commercial spaceport in the world, Spaceport America, is an FAA-licensed launch complex and active test facility. It is not open to public access, and launches aren’t open to public viewing. Private tours are arranged online at the Spaceport America website in advance through Final Frontier Tours.
When we visited the Southwest U.S., our tour with Final Frontier Tours began at the Visit Las Cruces Visitor Center. We boarded a 10-passenger van for the 57-mile drive to the Spaceport America facility and enjoyed the narration about the region.
For example, did you know that New Mexico is the leading producer of pecans in the U.S.? The Hatch Valley, famous for the unique terroir that contributes to the flavor and texture of the much sought-after Hatch chiles, is a scant 35 miles from Spaceport America.
The best part of our tour was that there were only 10 participants, which allowed a lot of interaction with our guide. We didn’t feel rushed and herded, as often happens in a tour group. This tour was an authentic experience that you can’t get anywhere else. Spaceport America is a real commercial space launch facility yet provides education with lots of hands-on and fun experiences. Curtis, our guide, was ever-present to photograph us in the best photo-op locations.
School programs are an essential experience at Spaceport America. They promote education with an emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). They want people to get excited about space and develop skills needed for space operations careers.
Pro Tips: Tours start at the Spaceport America Visitor Center in downtown Truth or Consequences, at the Visit Las Cruces office in Las Cruces, or directly at the Spaceport America facility. Be sure to confirm the starting place for your tour. Also, know that Final Frontier Tours may cancel tours with fewer than seven passengers. Spaceport America may also cancel them due to launch activities at the facility. Tours are sold out several weeks in advance, so plan ahead for the date you want.
2. The Gateway To Space
Our slow approach to the Space Operations Center (SOC) seemed like an experience out of a fictional space movie. The vast open space enveloped an odd triple disk-like building. The suspense was almost palpable as the scene unfolded before us.
From space, the facility looks like an alien landing signpost. Deserted roads with names like Asteroid Beltway are unmarked on maps.
3. In The Beginning
The entrance to Spaceport America is marked with a giant sculpture named Genesis, created by artist Otto Rigan. The 11,000-pound steel sculpture, inlaid with glass and mirror elements, was designed to represent the stars in the summer sky over the Spaceport.
4. Walk This Way
The lack of features on the external walls of Astronaut Walk created curiosity for what was to come. Almost invisible doors provided access into the facility.
5. Gateway Gallery
The Gateway Gallery is filled with light, space, art, and the GShock Trainer. I wanted to run to every display kiosk and study the mural like a kid.
The Journey Upward mural is a timeline from prehistoric time to the current day and beyond. Short interpretative descriptions of the region’s history and culture are depicted in the mural and found on four different touch screens in the exhibit.
6. GShock Trainer And The Right Stuff
The elaborate centerpiece in the Gateway Gallery is the Multi-axis trainer (MAT), otherwise known as the GShock (G is for gravitational) Centrifugal Trainer. The trainer is a gimbal rig with yaw, roll, and pitch that simulates the extreme forces astronauts face during launch, maneuvers, and re-entry. The astronauts experience disorientation to space upon re-entry when in a tumble spin.
Several hardy souls on our tour showed that they had the right stuff and took a spin on the MAT. I was not one of them.
7. Space Operations Center (SOC)
The Mission Control Room is the heart of space flight operations. Flight controllers and other ground personnel, the problem-solving team, manage flights from before liftoff through landing.
It’s easy to imagine launch day preparations when we touched the desktop, computers, dials, and microphone. Sitting in the decision-making seat was awe-inspiring.
My husband supported many Shuttle missions at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Houston. Notice the fond look on his face for this fantastic experience at Spaceport America.
8. Firefighting On The Ground
In-depth demonstrations by the lead firefighter delivered a close-up and unique experience to his audience. From extremely loud alarms on oxygen tanks to real-weight, dead-weight dummies, we gained a deep understanding of the perils and responsibilities during a fire emergency.
Thrilled to climb up into the cab of the behemoth fire engine, I gazed in wonder around the interior. Like a spaceship, the dashboard had a dizzying number of gauges, levers, and signals.
Another feature of this fantastic fire department tour included donning the heavy and cumbersome firefighter’s uniform — boots, jacket, and helmet.
9. Enormous Assembly Room
The massive room where the space vehicle assembly takes place was empty during our visit. A large observation window into the cavernous space helped us visualize the magnitude and size of the flight vehicle.
10. Cruising Altitude And Runway Launch Simulation
While the tour van limited our cruising altitude to Mother Earth, access to almost every corner of Spaceport America made us aware of the remoteness of the facility.
As a fitting end to our fantastic Spaceport America experiences, Curtis revved up the van’s engine, approached the threshold, lined the vehicle upon the centerline of the 12,000-by-200-foot wide runway, and released the brake. I thought for sure we were going to take flight as that line rapidly disappeared under the speeding vehicle. Alas, we remained earthbound while our imaginations soared into space.
11. Sassy Virgin Galactic Plane
The Virgin Galactic outdoor exhibit is a testament to the mission and vision of the future.
It is easy to imagine yourself a space voyager at Spaceport America when you reach for the stars in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
New Mexico is on the cutting edge and forefront of innovation. The state enjoys a robust economy and takes advantage of the scientific potential of the region.
Spaceport America is 18,000 acres adjacent to the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in Southern New Mexico, including a 6,000 square mile no-fly airspace. That is, from surface to unlimited.
There are many lodging choices in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Well-known chain hotels, boutique hotels, and house rentals offer good options. Make Las Cruces your base as a central point between Truth or Consequences, Hatch, and White Sands National Park.When you are in the area, plan a trip to White Sands National Park. It’s like no place else on Earth. Gypsum sand in wave-like dunes consumed 275 square miles of desert. Ranger programs at the park include Sunset Strolls presented every night and Full Moon guided hikes offered many times during the year. It’s only 52 miles from Las Cruces and a fantastic experience.