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Slipping the surly bonds of earth


More than 20 years ago, Len Sugerman drove from Las Cruces to give a presentation at the Tays Special Events Center at New Mexico State University-Alamogordo.

It was the first I’d heard the concept of a spaceport in New Mexico, but Sugerman, who arrived at NMSU in 1977 to direct the Physical Science Laboratory, was an early advocate of the concept (“At our altitude in southern New Mexico, the first mile’s free,” he would say). Right up to his death in 2007, he preached the spaceport the way a television evangelist preaches the Gospel: passionately, repeatedly and to anyone who would listen.

In the Gospel reading we heard in church last Sunday, Jesus talked about a prophet not being accepted in his home. You can’t say that about Sugerman who has a building named for him on the NMSU campus. The idea of a spaceport in southern New Mexico, however, has always had as many skeptics as supporters here in the Land of Enchantment. Even recently, there have been some elected officials in the state recommending New Mexico sell the spaceport.

Despite a lot of setbacks, Sugerman’s vision, in the form of Spaceport America in nearby Sierra County, has come to pass. And a new milestone is set to take place in the next few days.

Virgin Galactic, Spaceport America’s original and most recognizable tenant, will open a flight window July 11 that will take to space its first crewed flight on SpaceShipTwo Unity. Previous flights have only had a pilot and co-pilot. That six-person crew includes Virgin founder Richard Branson, who is Astronaut 001, and will be “evaluating customer spaceflight experience.”

If everything goes well on this flight, Virgin Galactic will be readying the way for civilian flights.

This is something we’ve been hearing about and anticipating for more than a decade.

The state of New Mexico caused delays with several stops and starts in legislation regarding the spaceport. Then, Virgin Galactic had its own delays, spurred most tragically by a 2014 crash in which one pilot died and another was seriously injured.

Now, finally, for Virgin Galactic’s flight, it appears all systems are go.

Over the past few years, Virgin Galactic has moved many of its people from California to its Las Cruces offices. And the VG hangar at the spaceport is abuzz with activity. And it’s not just Virgin Galactic. There are several other tenants at Spaceport America, all with projects in varying stages of progress.

We will be watching eagerly these next few days, and sending some silent prayers, in anticipation the flight will go well. Best of luck, Sir Richard Branson and crew.

Just three hours away from us, another suborbital flight is planned. Blue Origin, a space company sprouted from Jeff Bezos’s Amazon billions, has scheduled a launch for July 20. Not only is that my oldest daughter’s birthday, you may recall July 20 is also the day American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on the moon in 1969.

Blue Origin’s launch site is about 175 miles southeast of Las Cruces along Interstate 10 near Van Horn, Texas. The July 20 flight will include Bezos, his brother and an 82-year-old New Mexican named Wally Funk. Funk, who lives in Taos, was one of 13 women who trained in the 1960s for the Mercury space program, although none were selected by NASA. The fourth passenger on the Blue Origin flight is a yet-to-be-announced winner of an auction that topped out at $28 million.

Weather permitting, Branson will beat his fellow billionaire into space by nine days.

You may or may not have a rooting interest in whether Branson or Bezos gets to space first. But here’s who I see as the real winners: young people in southern New Mexico. Kids growing up here can see spaceflight is real, and it’s all around us. Southern New Mexico has many ties to the earliest days of space exploration. Like the film industry, in which a handful of stars get noticed, there are hundreds of people behind the scenes making things go in space. That translates to hundreds of jobs, hundreds of careers, perhaps even one for my youngest daughter, who wants to be an astrophysicist. And maybe nearby there’s a young, hopeful female astronaut who won’t have to wait until she’s 82 to go into space. It also means hundreds of ancillary jobs for people in and around Las Cruces to support the space industry and space tourism.

In 2008, I participated in the Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce Leadership program. Our class was fortunate enough to get a tour of the Virgin Galactic hangar while it was still under construction at Spaceport America. I lagged behind the tour group when I spied a magic marker, and a blank spot on the back of a wall. A spot that would soon be covered and visible only to a few dustmites.

So even though you can’t see it, somewhere in the bowels of the hangar is scrawled, in my bad handwriting, the word ¡Arriba!

Onward and upward, space travelers, and a safe, smooth return.


Richard Coltharp