THERE WERE THE MERCURY SEVEN.
Today, we are the Spaceport Thirteen – we who have come to ride a bus into the desert and learn what awaits us very soon in space. Our guide for the day is Mark Bleth. He’s thin and in his forties, with dusty blond hair. Like the woman at the ticket desk, he also wears a blue jumpsuit. As our little bus chugs out of town for the 40-minute drive to Spaceport, Bleth tells us to look out the window. We are on a twisting, narrow mountain road. Bleth points out a large concrete structure in the distance: the Elephant Butte Dam. He tells us how the dam came to be built in 1916. How the federal government, in order to construct such a massive public works project in the middle of nowhere, had to build a spur off of the main rail line to bring in supplies. The spur, he told us, was critical. “So,” says Bleth, “that’s Spaceport America: the spur. Before we can get to space on a regular basis, we need to build the spur. And just as the railroad opened up this vast nothingness of America for commercial use, so will Spaceport help open space for America’s commercial use.” Bleth pulls out a battered blue binder and flips it open to a photo of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket executing a successful vertical landing. “Are you all familiar with this? It happened only a few weeks ago.” Murmurs of recognition ripple through the bus. “So that was here?” someone asks. “No,” says Bleth. “No, that was not here. But we are hoping that Jeff will come and use our facility.” A few minutes later, we arrive at Spaceport – a large, turtle-shell-shaped structure that emerges gently from the desert flatlands. We are led into the main building, where, inside, a giant mural covers the wall. Called ‘The Journey Upward’, it begins on the left with prehistoric hominids (again with the apes) staring with awe and wonder at the night sky and ends with an image of what looks like a space station. I ask Bleth if Branson’s rocketplanes will fly to that space station. “It’s not a space station,” he says. “That’s the Bigelow Aerospace Hotel. Mr Branson plans to make regular flights there.” So mankind’s millionsof-years-in-the-making ‘Journey Upward’ crescendos at a hotel? “For now.” For now. Bleth leads us to some windows that look down on the large hangar below, where we can see Spaceshiptwo, Branson’s rocketplane – or rather, a full-scale replica of it. “It’s only a mock-up,” Bleth tells us. Because, well, the original Spaceshiptwo no longer exists. In October 2014, during a test flight, the craft broke apart over the Mojave Desert when one of its pilots prematurely unlocked the ship’s braking mechanism. One pilot died; the other was ripped from the cockpit and managed to deploy his parachute. Branson vowed that the accident “would strengthen our resolve to make big dreams come true.” Virgin set to work building a new craft (which it unveiled in February), but the tragedy has put all of Branson’s efforts at Spaceport in a freeze, with no one knowing when the next flight will be. It has also served as a reminder: rockets are dangerous. Space is good at killing you – even before you get there. “See up there?” asks Bleth when we get out onto the tarmac, pointing back at the main building. “The third floor? That will be the Virgin Galactic astronaut lounge. While you are waiting for your flight, you will relax there, until it is time to depart. Then you will come down here and board your plane.” Bleth tells us that in the first space age, only 546 humans went to space. “Think about that. But there are more than 700 people waiting to fly into space via private flights with Richard Branson. And he will start with his list of ‘founders,’ people like Leo Dicaprio. Pretty cool, right? And this is where they’ll depart from. Right here.” A waiting room before you zoom up 15,000m at approximately 3700km/h. Remember, space is good at killing you. It’s hard to imagine Leo relaxing in this lounge. The young woman next to me tells me she’s here on the tour because she’s camping her way across America. She’s a Doctor Who fan, and in one episode of the show, she says, there’s a Zygon invasion in Truth or Consequences. So she wanted to visit the town. The trip to Spaceport was something she decided to tack on. I ask her if she would ever go into space. “Congress just passed a law where anything you discover in space, you own,” she says. “So, that’d be cool.”