Surface to Unlimited

A visit to Spaceport America, where the coming of the Second Space Age is already history.

Spaceport America satellite view
Infrastructures of the 20th and 21st centuries: the Rio Grande Project (above) and Spaceport America (below) in southern New Mexico. [Jack Murphy; Google Earth]

As the sun races up into a clear blue sky, I head east out of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, crossing the Rio Grande below Elephant Butte Dam, once the largest irrigation storage dam in the world. 1 If you were high above the Earth, zoomed out on my station wagon, you’d see a rugged landscape sliced into infrastructural zones. This area has long been a laboratory for aerospace and weapons projects. Just over the mountains, in 1945, the first atom bomb was dropped at the Trinity test site, not far from where Wernher von Braun would develop the rocket technology that powered early space missions. Further east, near Roswell, Robert Goddard holed up with his research team in the 1930s, burning Guggenheim money on test rocket launches at a sheep ranch. At Holloman Air Force Base (formerly Alamogordo Army Air Field), military scientists raced rocket-powered sleds and flew high-altitude balloons and trained chimpanzees for spaceflight. And today, they test high energy laser weapons at White Sands Missile Range, the nation’s largest military installation, which is the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, not counting the volume of restricted airspace that extends “surface to unlimited” — from Earth to the outer edge of the atmosphere. 2

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In the shadow of that airspace, I cruise through the high desert basin of Jornada del Muerto and turn south along the Camino Real, a historic trade route that connected the missions of the upper Rio Grande with Mexico City. The county road is narrow and sometimes blocked by cattle, but it is freshly paved — the first clue that something new is happening out here. Low, scrubby plants texture the ground, and yellow wildflowers burst forth in small clearings.

The terrain is beautiful, but I am out here because of the sky. I’m on a pilgrimage to Spaceport America, the world’s first “purpose-built” commercial spaceport, which opened to tourists in 2015. 3 For better and worse, this is the new face of infrastructure in the United States. Transformative new technologies are developed by private companies in an ideological climate that favors small government and outsourced services. Spaceport America is built on state land, with state and county funds, and overseen by a state agency, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, but facilities are leased to private operators. Anchor tenant Virgin Galactic has ambitious plans to send space tourists into Low Earth Orbit, perhaps as soon as next year. 4

Spaceport America at sunrise
The western approach to Spaceport America, in the Jornada del Muerto basin, New Mexico. [Spaceport America]

Will outer space be more than a logistics hub for multinational corporations and a playground for the ultra-rich?

Skeptics say the technology has a ways to go before space tourism makes economic sense, but history shows how quickly science fiction can become reality. The first Space Age advanced rapidly from manned flights in the early 1960s, to the first moon landing in 1969, to the design of a reusable space shuttle, culminating in Columbia’s first crewed mission in 1981. 5 When Challenger exploded in 1986, it was the 25th shuttle flight. In the span of a generation, the once unimaginable feat of space travel became routine, almost boring. 6 NASA quietly ended the shuttle program in 2011, and since then American astronauts have commuted to the International Space Station on Russian capsules departing from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The space race may have officially ended with the Cold War, but there is still a lot of work to do in space: research to be conducted, communications satellites to be launched, money to be made. It’s a $335 billion global industry. 7 Through the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office — abbreviated as C3PO — NASA contracts with commercial space companies to deliver supplies and, soon, astronauts to the space station. 8 Meanwhile, a trio of companies led by billionaires — SpaceX (Elon Musk), Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos), and Virgin Galactic (Richard Branson) — are leading the nascent space tourism industry. SpaceX plans to send two mortals around the moon next year, in a literal moonshot, and Musk famously wants to colonize Mars. Blue Origin is working on a methane-powered rocket engine, in addition to developing its own capsule for tourists. Virgin Galactic envisions a future in which suborbital spaceflight replaces intercontinental aviation.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo fly above a runway dedication ceremony in 2010. [Mark Greenberg/Spaceport America]

Now the “New Space” economy nears an inflection point in its investment curve, as the mission-driven entrepreneurs who pioneered the industry are joined by more traditional tech investors looking for a profit. Forbes reported that in 2015 “venture capital firms invested $1.8 billion in commercial space start-ups, nearly doubling the amount of venture cash invested in the industry in all of the previous 15 years combined.” 9 Robert Cabana, the director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, likens the current state of the space industry to the early days of commercial aviation. 10 Others compare it to the rise of the internet, when the personal computing boom transformed a restricted research network into the world wide web. Those paradigm shifts deeply reshaped how we live; the coming “Second Space Age” may have the same effect. But will space be more than a logistics hub for multinational corporations and a playground for the ultra-rich?

There will be space makers and tinkerers, space theorists and humanists, space artists and athletes.

“The public grand opening of Space draws near,” researchers at the MIT Media Lab proclaimed this spring, when they announced their Space Exploration Initiative. 11 (Sci-fi director J. J. Abrams beamed in a video message for the launch.) Their manifesto continued: “Much as biology has witnessed an explosion of DIY bio-hacking in recent years, the dropping costs of space launches and cubesats enable a new mode of engagement in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and beyond. What was once an exclusive, expensive and narrowly serious pursuit begins to thaw.” It may be decades before you or I can afford space travel, the argument goes, but there will soon be other ways to engage with this new realm. There will be space makers and tinkerers, space theorists and humanists, space artists and athletes. Imagine a poet in residence on the International Space Station. As the MIT group sees it, “Space will be hackable. Space will be playful.” Still, there is the unspoken possibility of disaster. (About rockets, Tom Wolfe wrote, Ours all blow up.) 12

Spaceport America construction site
Spaceport America construction site in 2010. The spaceport opened for test launches in 2012, and the tourism “experience” opened in 2015. [Alexander Stirn]

The Alien Building Unfolds Its Wings

Photos of Spaceport America make the complex seem remote — heroically rising out of a pristine desert, without built context, as if it were alone on another planet — but in fact it was built on a working ranch. A foreman’s house stands just east of the spaceport runway. The Albuquerque Journal described a surreal scene in late 2005, as Branson, the “British billionaire” a.k.a. “that knight fellow,” landed by helicopter with a “phalanx of state government bureaucrats, aerospace wonks, brass from two counties, flacks from all over, rocket club members with models in their hands and elementary school kids with stars in their eyes.” The visit was arranged by the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, which had recruited Virgin Galactic as a partner on the $209 million spaceport. The residents of Bar Cross Ranch called them the “space people.” 13

The building’s swoop is heroic but enigmatic; a kind of futuristic Rorschach test, it triggers different associations in every viewer.

It seemed like an inspired partnership. New Mexico business leaders had been trying to raise funds for a spaceport since 1993, when they established the Southwest Spaceport Task Force. 14 They were shortlisted as a partner in a bid to produce Lockheed Martin’s X-33 vehicle for NASA, 15 and later they won the contract to host a major industry competition, the X Prize Cup, at Las Cruces airport, from 2005 to 2009. The cup was a spinoff of the $10 million Ansari X Prize, which spurred the development of the first private spacecraft in 2004. 16

Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic had licensed two-stage rocket technology from Scaled Composites, the company that won the X Prize, and was looking for a launch site. New Mexico’s advantages were plentiful: 340 days of sunshine, dry and noncorrosive air, access to a skilled workforce, and an empty sky, thanks to the restricted airspace at White Sands. The high elevation was also a benefit. Atmospheric density decreases with elevation, so launching from 4,600 feet above sea level reduces fuel costs. Hence the groan-worthy marketing slogan, “Your first mile is free.”

Spaceport America hangar doors
Spaceport America hangar from the south. [Jack Murphy]

With the Virgin Galactic agreement inked, the New Mexico state legislature committed funds for Spaceport America in 2006. Construction began in 2009 and was substantially complete by late 2011. The terminal hangar facility was designed by Foster + Partners, with SMPC Architects in Albuquerque and URS Corporation, an aerospace consultant. From above, the terminal recalls Virgin Galactic’s ocular logo, said to be modeled after Branson’s own eyeball. It is, for once, a building meant to be seen from the sky. 17

The long side elevations give the impression of a spacecraft taking off, trailing a cloud of dust as it escapes the Earth’s surface. A curvy, tapered overhang recalls the cross section of an airfoil. The swoop is heroic but enigmatic; a kind of futuristic Rorschach test, it triggers different associations in every viewer. I think of the captured alien fighter in Independence Day, but also the symmetric parabolic roof of Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal at JFK airport. Others see a horseshoe crab, a manta ray, or even a winged extraterrestrial, frozen in the act of unfurling its body in preparation for flight. The plan itself is strictly axial, with the campus arranged perpendicular to the approach from the west and the terminal divided into four radial quadrants, with habitable spaces mirrored around the hangar bay.

Plan of Spaceport America
Plan of the terminal hangar facility. [Foster + Partners]

Virgin Galactic anticipates that “astronauts” — as the space tourists are called — will spend several days in residence, preparing for their flight. Their experience has been elaborately choreographed. From the drop-off zone, they will proceed up the slotted walkway to the front entrance and then across the hangar on a catwalk suspended from the roof structure, with views down to the hangar below. 18 In the east wing, there are training rooms, an astronaut lounge, and an exterior deck. Mission control is on the second floor. On Launch Day, six passengers and two pilots will board the rocket plane, known as SpaceShipTwo, attached to its mother ship, WhiteKnightTwo. They will take off on a horizontal runway and rise to an altitude of 50,000 feet, where the spaceship will detach and rocket under its own propulsion into the upper atmosphere. The astronauts are promised “several minutes” of weightlessness, when they can float about the cabin and watch Earth through twelve portholes. On descent, the wings will fold up, or feather, to reorient the spacecraft for atmospheric re-entry, and the plane will glide back to the runway for a total flight time of about two and a half hours.

I feel like I am visiting Jurassic Park the day before the dinosaurs are revealed and the crowds press in.

My visit is strictly terrestrial but includes a personal tour with Dr. Bill Gutman, a retired university physicist who now directs operations at the spaceport. The terminal hangar facility is larger than I imagined, and its form more ambiguous. The scale shifts between approach, entry, and occupation, making it hard to discern the building’s true size, as it seems to change based on my vantage. From a distance, the spaceport is actually camouflaged. One of the design requirements was to preserve desert views from the Camino Real, so the terminal faces away from the historic corridor, and the roof slopes up from the ground. Approaching from the north, I saw sunlight glinting off the roof membrane and skylights long before I recognized the low mound as a building. Walking up the main promenade with Dr. Gutman, we are gradually enveloped by red rock berms filled with volcanic stone and colonizing grasses — it feels like moving through a long Richard Serra sculpture — before entering the building through integrated doors that blend into the steel walls. The berms, I am told, serve a practical function. Intake air for the mechanical systems is pulled through tunnels below and cools before it is used to condition the building.

Spaceport America entrance walkway
Entrance to the terminal hangar facility. [Jack Murphy]

Spaceport America
The hangar facility, as seen from the tarmac. [Jack Murphy]

Mark Bleth, who used to run the official bus tours departing from Truth or Consequences, describes the astronauts’ procession as an allegorical reenactment of human history. 19 The lucky few pass through desert rock (the Stone Age) and oxidized steel panels (the Industrial Age) before boarding their flight to the heavens (the Space Age). The rest of us have to settle for the view from the exhibit hall, where a single gallery window allows a peek at the massive hangar, opening onto the circular apron and the two-mile runway beyond. 20 Thanks to the deep space frame of the roof, there are no columns to interrupt floor circulation in the hangar. Tall exterior doors slide open on the north and south sides, and natural light pours in through circular skylights. Dr. Gutman tells me the bay can hold seven spacecraft — two pairs of WhiteKnightTwos and SpaceShipTwos, and three detached SpaceShipTwos — but today it is almost empty. An early prototype is parked in the hangar, as a prop. If you look closely, you can find seams that wouldn’t be there on a flight-ready vehicle. The only other object in the bay is an architectural model of the building itself.

Displays in the exhibit hall are devoted to the narrative of the Second Space Age, a timeline that begins with the indigenous history of New Mexico (represented by Mimbres pottery in a small vitrine) and ends with human spaceflight. The answer to the question “Why Go to Space?” reads like Kool-Aid prophecy: “Our mission is to unlock the potential of space for everyone, and in doing so, share a new era of prosperity, security, and advancement with all.” If you are unsettled by the idea of space exploration as the pinnacle of human achievement, you might want to skip the G-force simulator, a machine that spins riders in three directions simultaneously, inducing a force of 1.5 Gs. 21

Exhibit hall at Spaceport America
Exhibit hall at Spaceport America, after public tours were suspended earlier this year. [Jack Murphy]

Friday is an off day for most on-site employees, so the spaceport is nearly deserted, which has the unfortunate effect of underscoring the absence of its main tenant. 22 Nearly eight years after Branson unveiled his spaceship design, five years after Spaceport America was completed, and three years after the fatal crash of an experimental spacecraft, Virgin Galactic is still conducting glide tests at the Mojave Spaceport in California. (In July, a few months after my visit, Branson will tell reporters that he is ready to resume powered test flights and move operations to New Mexico. He now anticipates a maiden passenger voyage in late 2018.) 23 Several other companies are operating at Spaceport America, and to date the site has hosted 46 launches, but everyone awaits the arrival of the star attraction.

Standing out on the tarmac, with the wind filling my ears, I look back at the brooding terminal. I feel like I am visiting Jurassic Park the day before the dinosaurs are revealed and the crowds press in.

Dr. Bill Gutman, Director of Aerospace Operations at Spaceport America
Dr. Bill Gutman, Director of Aerospace Operations at Spaceport America, in the mission control room. [Jack Murphy]

The Radical, Intergalactic Tourism Experience

Truth or Consequences, population 6,400, also has a stake in the coming of the Second Space Age. The town has depended heavily on tourism since the days when it was known as Hot Springs. Mineral water bubbles up next to the Rio Grande, and visitors stop en route to White Sands National Monument. Spaceport photos are on display at the Geronimo Springs Museum, alongside Mogollon and Mimbres pottery, arrowheads, a collection of ranch brands, and snapshots of celebrity visitors. Spaceflight has been folded into the mythos of this town with the funny name, a place open to transformation, to big dreams. Out here, Spaceport America is already history.

Advance tickets cost $250,000. For the average citizen, the spaceport offers only a chance to tour the departure lounge of the stars.

A few blocks from the museum, the Spaceport America Visitor Center rents the tall-ceilinged, wood-floored auditorium of the Lee Belle Johnson Building, a WPA project that was formerly the town’s senior center. (A group of seniors now do their tai chi elsewhere.) The visitor center is the official departure point for the Spaceport America Experience, but Bleth’s company recently suspended its bus tours, and now the place is deserted while the spaceport finds another tour operator. (Its website says the tour is “closed due to refurbishment.”)

Spaceport America’s visual identity draws on the themes, icons, and images of the First Space Age. The America suffix injects a shot of national pride that, to me, rings hollowly patriotic, more Mall of America than NASA. (Branson, apparently, named the place.) 24 The red-white-and-blue logo, conceived by the designers as two stars “coming together,” can also be read as a single star, bent in profile, taking off like a spaceship. As a contemporary expression of space travel, it feels dated, indebted to the heroic past rather than the radical, intergalactic futurism of the terminal hangar facility design. But identity issues have always been a problem for Spaceport America, which has grafted a tourism business onto a major scientific endeavor. It’s fair to ask, What is the point of all this? Advance tickets for Virgin Galactic’s spaceflights, delayed for years, cost $250,000. For the average citizen, the Spaceport America Experience offers only a chance to tour the departure lounge of the stars.

Lee Belle Johnson Building, in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

Spaceport America Visitor Center, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico
Spaceport America Visitor Center, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico — until recently, the departure point for bus tours to the site. [Jack Murphy]

Since its opening, the spaceport has faced criticism for budget difficulties and for a financing structure that leaves the state and county governments to pick up the check if the promised boom in tourism and economic development never materializes. 25 The project’s success depends on the technology of its tenants, which has been slow to market, and the lack of activity has spurred some state legislators to demand the facility’s sale. Gutman tells me that spaceport officials are “disappointed” by the delays, but that morale is high because “we all know it is going to happen.” 26

In the meantime, Spaceport America has focused on educational and promotional outreach. It has hosted a drone summit, a rocket competition, and a 24-hour relay run from El Paso following the Camino Real. The building has begun to enter public consciousness, too, as the shooting location for the Gary Oldman film The Space Between Us, and in ads for Kawasaki motorcycles and Chicco strollers. The Second Space Age will be cross-branded, apparently. Half a century ago, the world was captivated by grainy footage of astronauts walking on the moon. In the coming years, we may well be inspired anew by a Chinese moon landing, Musk’s voyage to Mars, Branson’s suborbital aviation, or thousands of space hobbyists running science projects in the exosphere. But that day has not yet arrived. Spaceport America’s contingent identity reflects the fact that space, as a cultural concept, is more diffuse and evanescent than ever.

Buzz Aldrin listens as Donald Trump
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin attends a White House ceremony announcing the re-establishment of the National Space Council. [Associated Press]

Space, the Public-Private Frontier

This is infinity here. It could be infinity. We don’t really know. But it could be. It has to be something. But it could be infinity, right?

— Donald Trump, beside astronaut Buzz Aldrin 27

For decades, the United States government has promoted the commercialization of space, through privatization of its own operations and deregulation of the aerospace industry. 28 How that proceeds under the current regime is unclear (like everything else these days). 29 In his inauguration speech, Donald Trump described a society “ready to unlock the mysteries of space,” and he has at times signaled that space investment could be part of his murky infrastructure plans. 30 In a recent executive order, he revived the National Space Council, a “space policy advisory and steering group” last active in 1993, and put the vice president in charge. 31 One of the few concrete signs of the administration’s plans is the proposed federal budget, which maintains NASA’s funding for human spaceflight initiatives but eliminates four climate-related missions, including one satellite already in orbit. 32 While space itself has long been a realm of post-national cooperation, from the Outer Space Treaty in 1967 to the shared operations of the ISS, space access remains enmeshed with national identity and complicated by fraught relations with partners in Russia, China, and Europe. 33

As space becomes more accessible, we can expect better remote sensing and higher volumes of data. But how will we regulate satellites and the data they send back?

Whatever the political frame, it is clear that commercial spaceflight will transform how scientists conduct experiments. Satellite imaging has already revolutionized the study of weather, land use, and environmental conditions, including climate change research. In 2015, SpaceX launched the Deep Space Climate Observatory, proposed long ago by Al Gore, which captures near-real-time data on the sun and Earth. 34 As space becomes more accessible, we can expect better remote sensing and higher volumes of data. Ultimately, in terms of governance, whether launches are staged by public or private entities may be less important than how we regulate satellites and the data they send back. (This could turn out to be similar to today’s battles over net neutrality). Will your LEO payload be monitored so that you are not overcharged? Will your satellite downlink be policed to ensure it reports accurate images of algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico? Will we need a space traffic controller to manage atmospheric congestion? What about extraterrestrial resource extraction? California has already started to consider how to tax rocket launches. One proposal foresees taxes on flights up to the Kármán Line, at 100 kilometers, which defines the boundary between the atmosphere and outer space. 35 Recent testimony before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Space explored the complexities of regulation and the need for new policies, as minor errors in space can have disastrous results. 36

SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle, Kennedy Space Center
Elon Musk’s company SpaceX has been running routine resupply missions to the International Space Station, under contract with NASA. This photo was taken yesterday, August 14, as the twelfth mission launched at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. [NASA/Tony Gray and Sandra Joseph]

Between all the competing press releases and speculative news reports — some realistic, many less so — it’s hard to predict the next breakthrough in space technology. The jostling is evidence of the field’s progress, said Dr. Alan Stern, a planetary scientist who was the principal investigator for NASA’s New Horizon missions to Pluto and now chairs the board of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “Come back in five years and you’ll be pretty amazed at where this industry is,” he told me. 37 By then, it’s likely that the commercial sector will be handling much of NASA’s transit-related business, launching satellites, conducting zero-gravity experiments, exploring additive manufacturing, and taking paying customers — astronauts — on the ride of a lifetime. 38

There are now ten private spaceports licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration. Virgin’s space companies find themselves in a crowded field of competitors.

In the past decade, an archipelago of American spaceports and research sites has surfaced, with major operations underway in Mojave, California, and at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. There are now ten private spaceports licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration. 39 SpaceX was going to test at Spaceport America but never did; they now launch at Kennedy and are building a complex in south Texas. 40 Blue Origin has its own complex in far west Texas, about 200 miles from Spaceport America. Some companies, like XCOR’s Lynx, are planning a single stage to space — no detachable rocket boosters required — in contrast to designs by SpaceX, Blue Origin, and United Launch Alliance (a 50/50 collaboration between Lockheed Martin and Boeing), which utilize a capsule attached to a reusable rocket engine. Virgin’s trio of space companies, once ahead of the pack, now find themselves in a crowded field of competitors. Heath Haussamen, a journalist in Las Cruces, told me, “New Mexico had a real competitive advantage a decade ago, and I think we’ve lost that.”

To date, reservations on Virgin Galactic have been limited to those with deep pockets. (Companies advertising the brief flights are “glorified carnies,” a shop owner in Truth or Consequences told me.) But there are value options. For a base price of $5,000, Zero G will take “G-force 1” passengers through a series of weightless parabolas. 41 Dr. Stern’s company, World View, is developing high altitude balloons, or stratollites, for scientific research in the upper reaches of the atmosphere and LEO, including the capability for human transport. 42 “Balloons,” Stern said, “allow you to go to space without taking the high Gs or the risks of a rocket ride. They allow you to stay on the edge of space much longer than a rocket flight does, which goes up and down in a matter of ten or twenty minutes. And the costs are lower, as it’s a simpler system.” Beyond the novelty of space tourism, suborbital flight could be hugely disruptive to the long-haul airline industry, the real market that Virgin Galactic is after in its quest to become the “world’s first spaceline.” With suborbital flight, any two points on Earth could be no more than two hours’ apart, provided they are connected by spaceports.

World View Voyager Spacecraft
Promotional image for the Voyager spacecraft being developed by World View, which plans to operate high-altitude balloon flights from Spaceport Tucson. [World View]

The Sky’s Interior Surface Slips

Amidst the feeding frenzy of government boosters, ideological privatizers, eccentric visionaries, aerospace engineers, logistics specialists, and space enthusiasts all jockeying for media coverage, it can be easy to lose sight of the larger framework for these recent advancements. Homo sapiens have been on this Earth for a few hundred thousand years. In our lifetime, we are changing the planet’s climate and atmosphere dramatically — perhaps beyond recognition — and we watch ourselves doing this through a shell of sensors that stream images and data back to us in real time. Now we contemplate the idea that we ourselves, or perhaps our children, may travel to space. Stern emphasizes the importance of this historical moment:

Seeing the world from space is something that we in our time are going to experience as a public for the first time in the history of humanity. And people will look back, hundreds and thousands of years from now, and say, “It all began in the 2010s and 2020s, and after that it became routine, just like ocean travel and air travel became routine.” Now space travel will become routine, and it’s going to be transformational. 43

If Virgin Galactic begins passenger service late next year, it will coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission, which scouted the site for the first moon landing. “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth,” said astronaut Bill Anders. 44 His photograph, Earthrise, transmitted from Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve, 1968, primed viewers to understand our planet as one interrelated set of systems, a revelation that jumpstarted the modern environmental movement. As R. Buckminster Fuller put it, in a book published a few months earlier, “We are all passengers on Spaceship Earth.” 45

Earthrise photograph by Bill Anders
Earthrise, taken by astronaut Bill Anders during the Apollo 8 mission, on December 24, 1968. [NASA]

Space philosopher Frank White called this heightened awareness the Overview Effect, described by The Overview Institute as “the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere.” 46 Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell characterized it as “the ecstasy of unity.” He journeyed to moon in the winter of 1971, as his country was mired in the Vietnam War, and wrote about his transformation:

You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.” 47

To date, about 550 humans have ventured beyond the Kármán Line. Will a rapid rise in the number of citizen astronauts dramatically shift how we view our planet and our civilization?

Space, as we see it from Earth, is both a projective and protective skin. The atmosphere insulates the planet from harmful radiation and vacuous frigidity. It is hundreds of kilometers thick, but most of its mass is in the innermost layer, the troposphere. Oxygen and nitrogen molecules scatter the sunlight, giving the sky its blue color. We see above us a celestial ceiling, the top of the sky or the bottom of space, and we have learned to shift between these perspectives. The sky’s interior surface slips between plane and dome, but it remains a consistent mirror that reflects our collective gaze. We search for signs of life in outer space, if only to confirm the uniqueness of our place in the universe. In looking up at the stars, we also look back at ourselves.

Mark Bleth of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico
Former spaceport tour guide Mark Bleth, at the Truth or Consequences municipal airport. [Jack Murphy]

“Space is about humanity,” Bleth, the former tour guide, tells me, one morning in Truth or Consequences. Although he is critical of Spaceport America’s messaging (there are better applications, he says, “than joyrides to space”), he remains an evangelist for space travel. He is convinced that we are entering the “People’s Space Age.” Which raises the obvious question: will he go? “Absolutely, in a heartbeat, no hesitation whatsoever. I’d probably sell my house to go.” And he’s not waiting for costs to come down. “I don’t know if I’ll be alive 30 years from now when it becomes affordable,” he says. “I’d rather talk about it for the next 30 years and live in my van.” On my journey through New Mexico, I learn he’s not alone in that belief.

The sky’s interior surface slips between plane and dome, but it remains a consistent mirror that reflects our collective gaze.

Later that day, I head out to White Sands National Monument to watch the sun set on the gypsum dunes. The road starts out as asphalt but turns to a plowed washboard of sand a few miles in. Families are picnicking and flying kites in the stiff breeze. I traverse the hills and find a place where I can be alone for a short time. The fine sand whips around my legs and fills the webbing of my shoes, and I count how long it takes a footprint to disintegrate. (Four minutes.) The sweet smell of purple sand verbena lingers in the low calm places where the wind can’t steal it away.

Geoff Dyer wrote of these dunes, “the thing that must be emphasized is the whiteness of the sand, which could not have been any whiter.” 48 This is true only until the sun sets and ignites a sequence where the sand glows a warmish pink before fading into ivory and resolving to cobalt in the twilight. On the slope of the Sacramento Mountains, the New Mexico Museum of Space History briefly shines bronze. If you were high above the Earth, you’d see the jagged shadows of the San Andres Mountains stretch across the blueing sand. But I’m still on the ground, and all of a sudden the light is gone. The park rangers herd the revelers toward their cars, and we wait single-file as cautious drivers ease back onto the highway.

Earth sometimes feels like another planet.

White Sands National Monument at sunset
White Sands National Monument. [Jack Murphy]

Editors’ Note

This article was made possible by a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.

  1. Completed in 1916, the dam was a central component in the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Rio Grande Project, which fundamentally changed the development of the area by providing intensive irrigation and electrical power.
  2. Restricted Area 5107A and 5107K are defined in the federal register, document E8-19271.
  3. While there are other commercial spaceports, Spaceport America is the first that was designed specifically for private operations, i.e. not adapted from a military facility or conventional airport.
  4. To clarify some terms and give scale: Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is between 99 and 1,200 miles above the Earth’s surface. The International Space Station is up there, at an altitude of 250 miles, along with many satellites and space telescopes. Geosynchronous equatorial orbit (GEO), where objects maintain a constant position over the Earth’s equator, is much higher, at an altitude of 22,236 miles. This is roughly 10 percent of the distance to the moon and 0.02 percent of the distance to the sun.
  5. Andrew Chaikin’s satisfyingly thorough A Man on the Moon (Penguin, reissued 2007) chronicles the history of this effort through 1972, when humans last set foot on the moon. Such triumphs were realized in the context of existential dread about the threat of Soviet arms in space. “The role of this fear in influencing space policy is not to be underestimated,” wrote Margaret Lazarus Dean, in Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight (Graywolf, 2015), her personal obituary of the shuttle era. For more on the daring feats of 20th century aerospace engineering that laid the groundwork for the American space program, see Annie Jacobsen’s Operation Paperclip (Little Brown, 2014) and Michael Neufeld’s biography Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War (Knopf, 2007).
  6. “The Annual Compendium of Commercial Space Transportation: 2017” [PDF], U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, January 2017.
  7. Some felt the return on investment from the shuttle program wasn’t worth it, as flights were less frequent than foreseen and each one cost about $450 million. “The space agency was embarrassed because a program that had been sold as providing what amounted to scheduled airline service was operating like a charter carrier in a banana republic,” wrote William E. Burrows in The New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age (Modern Library, 1999).
  8. The private contractors Orbital ATK and SpaceX have been making regular supply runs to the International Space Station since 2012, and the missions are now quite frequent. As I was writing his article, SpaceX launched its eleventh resupply mission, on June 3, 2017, with the capsule returning a month later. (See Steven Siceloff, “Dragon Splashes Down to Complete Resupply Mission,” on NASA’s SpaceX blog, July 3, 2017.) On, August 14, the day before publication of this article, they launched the twelfth. Sierra Nevada Corporation has a contract to start cargo transport in 2019. Meanwhile, Boeing and SpaceX are frontrunners in the program to transport crew to the space station, after unmanned test flights scheduled for next year.
  9. Clay Dillow, “VCs Invested More in Space Startups Last Year Than in the Previous 15 Years Combined,” Fortune, February 22, 2016.
  10. Interviewed in Bloomberg, “Star Wars: The Battle to Build the Next Shuttle,” YouTube, May 4, 2014.
  11. Overview,” Space Exploration Initiative, MIT Media Lab. See also Margaret K. Evans, “Media Lab Sets Sights on Space,” MIT, March 14, 2017.
  12. Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff (New York: FSG, 1979), 99.
  13. Toby Smith, “High Lonesome Ranch Is Poised to Become Home to a $225 Million Spaceport,” Albuquerque Journal, January 22, 2006.
  14. This history is outlined in more detail in Chapters 8 and 9 of Loretta Hall, Out of This World: New Mexico’s Contribution to Space Travel (Rio Grande Books, 2011).
  15. After testing delays, NASA canceled the X-33 program in 2001.
  16. The Ansari X Prize was awarded to the first team to “build a manned spacecraft without any government funding, return to safely to Earth after carrying three people (or a pilot and weight equivalent to two passengers) into space [defined as the Kármán Line, 100 kilometers above sea level] and repeat the feat in the same vehicle within two weeks.” A history of the prize is told in Julian Guthrie’s recent book How to Make a Spaceship (Penguin, 2016) and includes extensive details about the preparations of the Scaled Composite team.
  17. Bill Millard, “Boldly Go,” The Architect’s Newspaper, May 1, 2014. Millard surveyed the state of spaceport architecture in 2014, including Spaceport America as well as unbuilt proposals.
  18. Grant Booker, senior partner at Foster + Partners, said, “We were trying to make something that was very concentrated and where, [as] in the early days of flight, you get the people close to the equipment.” Quoted in Millard, op. cit.
  19. For perspective on what Mark Bleth’s bus tours were like, see Michael Hainey, “Postcards from the Astronauts’ Lounge,Wired, March 2016.
  20. I note that the window is a bit milky. It is smart glass, and can go opaque at the flick of a switch, in case sensitive work is being done in the hangar. Gutman explains that International Traffic in Arms Regulations require proper steps be taken to in order to protect the trade secrets of Virgin Galactic’s technology so that they cannot be ascertained and weaponized by foreign entities.
  21. With Gutman at the controls, I tested it with one of the custodial staff who was cleaning during my visit. He had never ridden in it before, and Gutman was happy to oblige. The rotation is uniformly complex, so motion sickness is dulled because your inner ear doesn’t know what to make of it all.
  22. Both the New Mexico Spaceport Authority and Virgin Galactic maintain offices in Las Cruces, New Mexico, 56 miles (some of it on a dirt road) south of the spaceport facility.
  23. Bruce Einhorn, “Branson Aims Mid-2018 Space Trip as Virgin Resumes Powered Tests,” Bloomberg, July 5, 2017.
  24. Joshua Wheeler, “Failure to Launch: How New Mexico Is Paying for Richard Branson’s Space Tourism Fantasy,” Buzzfeed, March 20, 2014.
  25. Despite the promised economic development, the facility still relies on state funding and carries substantial operating costs. (One informal analysis of the spaceport’s proposed 2017 budget found that taxpayers would support $2.85 million of the $6.4 million designated for operations.) In a relatively poor state whose economic fortunes are tied to oil and gas prices, that is a heavy burden. News stories have pummeled the venture for its failures, making the leadership of the New Mexico Space Authority reluctant to field press inquiries and provide transparency about the finances. See, for example, Wheeler, op. cit., and Caty Enders, “Space Travel for the 1%: Virgin Galactic’s $250,000 Tickets Haunt New Mexico Town,The Guardian, October 4, 2014. More than one internet commentators has called the project $pacePork.
  26. Heath Haussamen, a political journalist based in Las Cruces, reported that he struggled this spring to obtain clear information about spaceport operations that should be publicly available under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act. (See Haussamen, “Sunshine Will Help Spaceport America Succeed,”, March 12, 2017.) He received lease agreements but some had key information like the rental amount redacted. Haussamen told me he found the noncompliance “extremely concerning,” and added, “If you’re going to treat it like public infrastructure, then it’s subject to public records laws as decided by the legislature and the governor.” After his report, state senator Mary Kay Papen introduced Senate Bill 429, the “Spaceport Confidential Records Act,” which would give the spaceport legal authority to hide a “customer’s or potential customer’s identity, correspondence, schedules, agreements, payments, activities, technology, visitor logs, policies, security protocols, and sensitive or proprietary data.” (Like a similar bill introduced in 2008, this one did not make it into law.) Haussamen says he supports the mission of the spaceport and is not trying to disparage it; he is only pushing  for transparency In fact, he said, some local  experts think a wider economic study would change the story about the full impact of the spaceport and its related supply chains in the region: “They may actually be doing better than they know and they’re not adequately communicating that to the legislature or the public.”
  27. This comment came after astronaut Buzz Aldrin, standing beside Trump, had made a reference to the Toy Story character Buzz Lightyear, whose catchphrase is “To Infinity and Beyond.” Trump apparently missed the reference and tried to pass it off with a riff on infinity. Astonishingly, this was not the strangest moment at a particularly insane press conference. Trump also mentioned placing weapons in space, which would be a direct violation of the Outer Space Treaty. See Avi Selk, “‘It Has to Be Something, but It Could Be Infinity’: Trump Ponders Space in Strange Ceremony,” The Washington Post, July 1, 2017.
  28. In 1984, the Commercial Space Launch Act encouraged the “utilization of the space environment for peaceful purposes” and established licensing arrangements for private spacecraft launches. It was clarified by amendments in 2004. The SPACE Act of 2015 further streamlined the licensing and regulatory environment for commercial space travel. That act was signed into law by President Obama, although it was opposed by Democrats on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, who thought it was a rubber stamp of industry wishes. See “Statement on H.R. 2262” [PDF], by Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Mary 13, 2015.
  29. “A lot of people were caught off guard with the Trump administration,” Eric Stallmer, President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, told me. The CSF is an industry group that promotes, according to their literature, “development of commercial human spaceflight, pursues ever-higher levels of safety, and shares best practices and expertise throughout the industry.” They also lobby Congress on issues of science and commerce relevant to their constituents. Stallmer portrayed the industry as divided in its response to the new political realities. “Some folks out there truly in the scientific and exploration community see this as a potentially large challenge, but there’s others out there who are staying the course,” he said. Ultimately, “these are scientific companies. They will continue to develop these technologies for the market.”
  30. Donald Trump’s Inaugural Address, January 20, 2017.
  31. Sarah Kaplan, “President Trump Relaunches the National Space Council,” The Washington Post, June 30, 2017. See also Selk, op. cit.
  32. Andrea Thompson, “Trump Budget Cuts ‘Critical’ NASA Climate Missions,” Scientific American, April 1, 2017. See also Henry Fountain, “Scientists Fear Climate Data Gap as Trump Aims at Satellites,” The New York Times, April 10, 2017.
  33. While I was reporting for this article in New Mexico, an MS-04 Soyuz capsule ferried Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and American astronaut Jack Fischer to the ISS. It was the week after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, amid rising tensions in Syria and ongoing investigations of U.S. election interference. I wondered what the pillow talk was like on that six-hour ride to space.
  34. William Graham, “SpaceX Falcon 9 Successfully Launches the DSCOVR Spacecraft,” NASA Spaceflight, February 11, 2015.
  35. Tim Fernholz, “California’s Plan to Tax Rockets by the Mile Is Exactly What Space Companies Want,” Quartz, May 6, 2017.
  36. U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology; Subcommittee on Space Hearing, “Regulating Space: Innovation, Liberty, and International Obligations,” March 8, 2017.
  37. The CSF is adamant that privatization and deregulation will bring down costs. Stallmer told me, “When there’s a commercial perspective you run your railroad a bit differently.” Recently, four leaders of commercial space companies — all CSF members — testified before the U.S. Senate about the need to standardize and streamline bureaucratic requirements. See U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Hearing, “Reopening the American Frontier: Reducing Regulatory Barriers and Expanding American Free Enterprise in Space,” April 26, 2017.
  38. A private moon landing is already on the horizon, with Google’s $30 million Lunar X Prize spurring competition. (Some teams aim to attempt a rover landing this year.) If you’re curious, there’s a series of video shorts, produced by J.J. Abrams, on the competing teams.
  39. U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, Commercial Space Data, Active Licenses.
  40. For more on SpaceX’s plans for Brownsville, Texas, see Domingo Martinez, “Countdown to Liftoff,” Texas Monthly, August 2016.
  41. See the Zero-G website.
  42. For more on World View’s plans, see Darrell Etherington, “World View’s ‘Stratollites’ and New Spaceport Aim to Change the Business of Space,” TechCrunch, February 23, 2017.
  43. Correspondence with the author.
  44. Bob Granath, “Astronaut Photography from Space Helped ‘Discover the Earth,’” NASA, April 22, 2016.
  45. R. Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1968), adapted from a speech at the American Planners Association convention, October 16, 1967, Washington, D.C. Fuller popularized the phrase but it has been in use since the late 1800s.
  46. “Declaration of Vision and Principles,” The Overview Institute website.
  47. “Edgar Mitchell’s Strange Voyage,” People Magazine, April 8, 1974.
  48. Geoff Dyer, White Sands (New York: Pantheon, 2016), 125.
Jack Murphy, “Surface to Unlimited,” Places Journal, August 2017. Accessed 02 Oct 2023.

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