THERE WERE THE MER­CURY SEVEN.

GQ (Australia) - - THE INDEPENDENT BROTHER -

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.”

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