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Another giant leap for New Mexico and space


Seventy-six years ago today, scientists based in New Mexico, detonated the world’s first atomic bomb. It happened in a place a little over two hours’ drive from Las Cruces.

In other words, drive to San Antonio, New Mexico, for a green chile cheeseburger at the Owl and/or the Buckhorn, then drive a half hour or so east, and you’re at Ground Zero.

Five days ago today, another significant scientific achievement took place in New Mexico. Unless you’ve been hiding under a giant moon rock, or the world’s biggest piece of Trinitite, you know Sunday, July 11, Virgin Galactic launched an aircraft from Spaceport America in Sierra County, about 45 minutes from Las Cruces. Its six-person group, including Virgin founder Richard Branson, flew to the edge of space, achieved weightlessness, free from the bonds of gravity and safely returned on, essentially, a glider ride to the Spaceport America runway.

The history of space flight, and all kinds of important scientific discovery, has deep roots in southern New Mexico. Many New Mexicans, including myself, may underestimate the accomplishments.

Southern New Mexico’s space bona fides:

  • Twelve men have walked on the moon. Two of them claim southern New Mexico as their home.  Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to make the walk, 50 years ago with Apollo 14, grew up in Artesia. Harrison Schmitt, the last person to walk on the moon, with Apollo 17 in 1972, is from Silver City
  • American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard took up residence in Roswell in 1930, and accomplished some of his most important work there.
  • After World War II, the U.S. military brought German scientist Werner Von Braun to White Sands Proving Grounds (now White Sands Missile Range) to perfect the V2 rocket.
  • Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, taught astronomy at New Mexico State from 1955-73, and retired in Las Cruces until his death in 1997.
  • The International Space Hall of Fame was established in Alamogordo in 1976.
  • Several aircraft and pilot innovations later used by astronauts were tested at Holloman Air Force Base.
  • NASA opened its White Sands Test Facility to test propulsion in 1963, the same year President John F. Kennedy came to visit WSMR and inspect the latest missile expertise. In 1961, Kennedy had told Congress, America should put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. His vision became reality in July 1969, just a few months before the end of the decade.
  • In 1982, the Space Shuttle Columbia landed at WSMR.
  • If that’s not enough for you, how about this? David Bowie filmed part of the 1975 sci-fi film “The Man Who Fell to Earth” at WSMR.
  • I won’t even mention the 1947 Roswell UFO incident.
  • In 2011, New Mexico opened Spaceport America, which contrary to popular belief, has housed many tenants in the past decade, not just Virgin Galactic, and has been the site of multiple launches and tests, by a number of companies and organizations.
  • And, of course, the latest, the July 2021 launching of commercial passengers into space and returning safely.

I watched the Virgin launch from the Rio Grande Theatre in Downtown Las Cruces. I’m grateful to the city for making the opportunity available, but now I regret not being at the spaceport to see it with my own eyes.

The first time I saw the unimposing obelisk at White Sands Missile Range, marking the spot where the atomic bomb was first detonated, I got emotional. I certainly hadn’t anticipated that. But what happened on that spot changed the course of human history.

One day we’ll look back on the July 11 spaceflight as another event that changed history.

Richard Coltharp