It takes about five hours to drive from Santa Fe to Spaceport America, the state-owned home base for Virgin Galactic's commercial space operation. The company promises the average millionaire the opportunity to launch out into earth's upper atmosphere just as soon it finishes ironing out the final aesthetic details of space travel. Those details include designing spaceship interiors and Under Armour space suits for guests, a Virgin Galactic public relations rep told SFR at the spaceport's open house event that kicked off the 2019 Las Cruces Space Festival on April 7.
SFR arrived with high hopes but found the event felt half-baked and underwhelming—even if the future of the commercial space industry looks promising.
Luckily, the 33-mile trek out into the desert beyond Truth or Consequences felt just thrilling enough to satisfy our appetite for adventure as we traversed past the outer reaches of network service and navigational errors sent us down miles of unmarked dirt roads through the dried-up, dusty basin of what was once an ancient ocean, now strewn with scattered sagebrush and the occasional rusty cattle ranch signpost.
The massive curved hull of the space hangar and the domed iron roof of the fire station blend so perfectly into the desert landscape that we might have missed it had it not been for a long line of cars stretching to the guarded entrance of the facility. The architecture and surroundings bear such a surreal resemblance to the space hubs of Luke Skywalker's home planet of Tatooine that SFR almost expected to find R2-D2 zipping across the floor of the hanger where commercial space crafts will one day be housed and where the event took place.
Inside, the vendors sold space merch at booths and tables, and astronauts for Virgin Galactic and NASA held demonstrations explaining space travel. A series of industry experts discussed the future of the commercial space industry onstage, and educational STEM programs showcased small scale robots in a bot competition.
Outside, a ballroom dance troupe from Las Cruces led an interactive dance for attendees who showed up from everywhere from Santa Fe to El Paso, and small private planes came and went down the runway—strikingly reflected in the massive mirrored wall of the hanger. A promised rocket launch turned out to be a competition for kids who launched their handmade contraptions next to a parade of special spaceport firetrucks, and the only life-sized space ship—and a model version, at that—stood at the far end of a parking lot near the entrance to the facility.
Virgin Galactic, founded in 2004 by British entrepreneur Richard Branson, initially predicted that its first commercial space flight would launch as early as 2009, but the date has been repeatedly pushed back due to technical difficulties. A pilot error led to a fatal crash in 2014, and the venture finally achieved its first successful flight in December of last year.
"Today, for the first time in history, a crewed spaceship built to carry private passengers reached space," Branson told SpaceNews after the flight in December.
Chris Lopez, director of space operations at Spaceport America, tells SFR that Virgin Galactic may only be three or four powered flights away from the first commercial flight, and company spokeswoman Aleanna Crane hints some kind of "important announcement" is coming soon.
However, Lopez is also quick to clarify that Virgin Galactic is not the only company using Spaceport America facilities. The spaceport, which was built with about $200 million in taxpayer money, has already accomplished 200 launches and contracts with nearly a dozen other companies in the industry, including Boeing.
While Virgin Galactic has definitely attracted the most attention to the spaceport with its plans to send tourists to space, the most potential for growth lies in science and telecommunication industries, he says. The micro-gravity environment accessible at the outer regions of the atmosphere opens the opportunity for scientific experiments that are not possible on Earth.
"Agriculture experiments, medical experiments and other experiments in telecommunications are happening at the spaceport already," says Lopez. "Because of where commercial space is going, the next economy is going to be space. We as New Mexicans have lost out on opportunities from the semi-conductor world to the software world; let's not lose the next industry, and this is it."
The first commercial flights seek to take people up to the edge of the atmosphere and then straight back down again in a 90-minute flight. However, Crane says that she sees space travel becoming a viable mode of global transportation from one side of earth to the other.
"There's a lot of discussion happening about other spaceports. … If you think about the future of point-to-point travel, you would need a network of spaceports," she says.
UBS, a multinational investment bank and financial services firm, released a report on March 17 predicting that the space economy will grow 3% to 10% over the next 10 to 15 years, with the potential to become a $805 billion industry by 2030.
So while SFR did not get to go up in space this time (and isn't likely in line for that first coveted press space-junket), and we didn't get to see a proper rocket launch, perhaps the spaceport will still deliver. Facilities were only open to the public for the weekend, but the Las Cruces Space Festival continues throughout the week. For more information, visit lcspacefestival.com.