There are a lot of crazy things apparently hidden in the desert expanses of New Mexico, and the world’s first dedicated commercial spaceport is one of them.
Spaceport America, which is exactly what it sounds like—an airport for space travel—is the first of its kind.
The sprawl of flat, dry land in south central New Mexico is the home to many closed-door projects (think UAV tests, precision missile launches and all of the X-Files-esqueactivities we certainly aren’t privy to), but Spaceport America was kind enough to open its security gates to ReadWrite and let us take a peek.
Spaceport America is the functional hub of Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s endeavor to send non-astronauts with sufficient funds into suborbital space. Elon Musk’s SpaceX also leases the space, with a few modest trailers on-site.
Driving out to the site, our tiny press group followed a truck for 30 miles off the not-so-beaten path from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Roads signs were only occasionally marked with crude drawings of a rocketship, but finding this place without a caravan would have been close to impossible.
Spaceport America is more open to the public than at first meets the eye. A joint effort between the state of New Mexico and the booming private commercial spaceflight sector, Spaceport America intends to open its doors to the taxpayers who helped build it with an on-site visitor’s center planned for fall 2014 (and, yes, well-marked road signs too).
For a little bit, a tour bus even joined us on the tarmac.
Unfortunately, Virgin Galactic’s building didn’t offer the same openness—it’s under construction at the moment anyway, and the Virgin team comes and goes for testing and launches as needed. As Executive Director Christine Anderson explained, Virgin Galactic is Spaceport America’s foremost long-term client—and no landlord (spacelord?) lets strangers wander around when their tenant is out of town.
Still, there was plenty to see—from Spaceport America’s tiny, efficient command center, to its 12,000-foot “spaceway,” to the up-close exterior Virgin’s LEED-certified dual hangar/terminal, a structural marvel that fits into the desert landscape functionally and visually almost as well as the wildlife.
Christine Anderson, executive director at Spaceport America, gave us a look into mission control, a remarkably scaled-down reality compared to the mass chaos that non-private space missions (and Hollywood) have us expect.
There’s no coincidence in the proximity of Spaceport America to New Mexico’s vast swath of forbidden government testing grounds. Spaceport America coordinates closely with the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range, the largest commercial no-fly zone in the country, in order to share its unpopulated airspace.
Below is Virgin Galactic’s hub, designed to blend into its similarly low-profile surroundings.
This bay opens up for Virgin Galactic’s various spacecrafts, like SpaceShipTwo, a spacecraft that actually takes off from a horizontally-launched aircraft.
All photos by Taylor Hatmaker for ReadWrite