SPEND TIME IN NEW MEXICO
Five months later, Alan Shepard repeated the mission, minus the banana pellets. Ham lived out the rest of his life in zoos. When he died, his remains came to Alamogordo. You lead America into space and they bury you in a parking lot. Well, most of you. After he died at that zoo, the idea was to do an autopsy on Ham, then stuff his hide and put him on display in a museum. That was the plan, until word leaked out. People felt this was a bit too undignified for our first space hero (or maybe a bit too Soviet – it’s what the USSR did to Strelka, one of nine dogs they sent into orbit). So the government abandoned its plan for a stuff ’n’ show. It was decided Ham’s remains would get a proper burial – minus his skeleton. Once a science specimen, always a science specimen. His flesh was detached from his bones and his remains were sent to New Mexico. Ham’s skeleton lives on, as it were, in a drawer at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. You are a pioneer. A trailblazer for the space age. And what glory is yours? Nothing. You end up a shell of your former chimp self. Just west of the museum is White Sands Missile Range, the secret-ish US military base where von Braun and his new employers tested all those captured V-2s. Ever since, the place has been where the US has tested rockets, from Patriot Missiles to nukedelivery vehicles to Star Wars defence systems. There’s a small ‘exhibit’ just inside the heavily guarded gate of the base, and after the sentry spends 10 minutes running a background check on my driver’s licence, I’m waved inside – “OK, New York, you’re good.” The exhibit is a history (of sorts) of American rocketry since World War II; a greatest hits, I guess, of America’s first space age. Dozens of decommissioned missiles jut up out of the hard desert ground at steep angles, mimicking a moment in launch. It looks like an avant-garde art installation for projectiles. And as I wander through, I try to look at the plaques that seem to be placed in front of each missile. But the plaques are missing. There are metal frames, but they’re empty. Fifty or so missiles, and I can’t find one that has a name or a caption anywhere. All I’m left with is a smattering of rockets without context. Space. A funny thing. A place of no context that we have to give context. and you start to hear about the two space ages. The first is all Goddard and von Braun and big, lumbering, one-off rockets the size of skyscrapers that are built by big government and the military-industrial complex for hundreds of millions of dollars so we can send a tiny group of humans to the moon. The second space age is all about you. And it’s all about something you hear a lot these days – that the “barrier to entry” is now low enough that soon, to paraphrase Elwood Blues, you, me, them, everybody will get to space. Tours to the second age start at the town of Truth or Consequences. At a welcome centre, I sign in with an elderly woman behind the counter who wears a blue Spaceport America flight suit. The room seems to be an old auditorium, and on one side there is a small stage that sits empty, save for a folding table and an American flag. At the opposite end of the room there’s a number of rickety primary-school-level interactive exhibits. Like the plastic, kid-size rocket. Above it there’s a circular banner inscribed with the phrases “Living in Space, Working in Space, Playing in Space.” On the other side of the banner there are more words, but I am not sure whether these were written for Spaceport America or are someone’s leftover entry from a Soviet poetry competition: “Service, Routine, Muscular Tonality, Gastrointestinal Health.” Not exactly firing up the next generation to go out and science the shit out of shit. While I am waiting for the tour to start, I meet Blair Williamson. A big guy. Firm handshake. “A recently retired solar-power businessman,” he offers. He and his wife had an extra day on their vacation, and he thought it important to see Spaceport. “I’m a man who believes in sussing out opportunities. This is the next big thing,” he says. “If you ask me, it’s a mistake to go to Mars. We got to get back to the moon. Pronto.” Why’s that? “By the time we get to Mars and come back, there’ll be 10,000 Chinese on the moon, waving at
FROM TOP: THE LEAST INTERESTING SPACE SHUTTLE EVER, AT SPACEPORT AMERICA; SPACEPORT TOUR GUIDE MARK BLETH; MISSION CONTROL, UNMANNED – FOR NOW. RIGHT: SPACE TOURISTS MICKEY MCMANUS AND DARA DOTZ.