Eighty years of space-related research in New Mexico that brought the US space program from the infancy of rocketry to the verge of space tourism flights, told through the experiences of people who made it happen.
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Out of this World in 80 Years
Jules Verne, a favorite author of early rocketeers, sent adventurers around the world in 80 days in one of his novels. Out of this World: New Mexico's Contributions to Space Travel tells how, in 80 years, researchers and adventurers in New Mexico brought America's space program from Robert Goddard's development of liquid-fuel rockets to Richard Branson's space tourism flights and other activities at Spaceport America, the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport. Available in hardcover and paperback.
1598: The Road to the Future Begins
In 1598, three European astronomers—Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and Tycho Brache—were helping each other develop the new astronomical theory that the planets revolve around the sun. They invented and refined instruments to track the planets’ movements, developed mathematical models to predict eclipses, and compared the timing and duration of the actual events to their predictions. Their work created a foundation on which, three and a half centuries later, space travel could become a reality.
At the same time, half a world away, another event took place that would eventually create a stage for many of the developmental dramas of space travel. This event also involved traveling into new frontiers, but of a more rudimentary sort than rocket ships catapulting into the sky. Spain’s King Phillip had authorized a Spanish conquistador named Juan de Oñate to colonize New Mexico. To accomplish that mission, Oñate had to forge a trail northward from New Spain (now Mexico) into the foreign territory. He began at the end of El Camino Real, an important trade route that stretched a thousand miles northward from Mexico City. The extension Oñate pioneered added 700 miles to the route, and it would remain the primary road into New Mexico for more than two centuries, until the Santa Fe Trail connected the territory to the United States. In fact, El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (The Royal Road to the Interior) continued to be a vital transportation facility until a railroad crossed New Mexico in the 1880s.
Oñate began his pioneering expedition in the spring of 1598. It was a large caravan: more than 500 soldiers and settlers, along with 7,000 head of livestock and 83 oxcarts carrying supplies. Ten Franciscan friars came too, to convert the pagan Indians. Many of the travelers simply walked—that was the state of the art of transportation in the late sixteenth century. While traveling, the caravan could stretch out for 3 miles or more. The first 150 miles of their journey through the Chihuahuan desert from Santa Bárbara, Mexico, to the Rio Grande (Great River) took four months.
With the new territory of their dreams in sight across the broad river, the parched and exhausted colonists and animals stopped to recuperate and savor the plentiful water supply. While they rested, Oñate sent out scouts to find a place where the river was shallow enough to cross. Word of an acceptable spot soon came, on an auspicious day: April 30, 1598, the Feast of the Ascension, when Catholics celebrate the ascent into heaven of the risen Savior. The Franciscans celebrated Mass. The colonists, having regained their strength, held foot races and other sporting events. They even performed a play written by one of the soldiers, dramatizing how eagerly the Indians would receive them and embrace Christianity—and how the soldiers would decisively quash any resistance to colonization.
Several days later, the caravan crossed the Rio Grande and entered the newly claimed territory. Progress through the Mesilla Valley was relatively smooth, marred only by the occasional wagon breakdown or straying animal. After about three weeks, however, Oñate learned that, against his orders, a scouting party had revealed the expedition’s existence to the Indians. He decided to push forward immediately with a quick-moving advance party of only sixty people to reassure the Indians of their peaceful intentions. They immediately met a severe geographical challenge: a 90-mile stretch of daunting desert that would become known as Jornada del Muerto (Journey of the Dead). For five arduous days, the party trudged across the desolate valley, finding no water, no shade, no firewood, and no vegetation for their horses to graze on. Finally, they happened upon a most welcome sight: the meandering Rio Grande. Even better, there was a Pueblo Indian village where they were fed and comforted. Oñate gave the village a new name: Socorro, the Spanish word for help.
The trail Oñate and his fellow pioneers forged from Mexico through the Jornada del Muerto and on to the new village of Santa Fe was one of the most important transportation achievements of North America. Four centuries later and 27 miles to the west, across the still-desolate landscape of Jornada del Muerto, another transportation revolution is taking place. The world’s first purpose-built commercial space travel launching site, Spaceport America, is an unobtrusive but spectacularly innovative addition to the southern New Mexico desert. The access road to the spaceport actually crosses El Camino Real.
Spaceport America tenants, such as UP Aerospace, launch commercial and scientific payloads in unmanned rockets. Anchor tenant Virgin Galactic initially offers suborbital flights to space tourists. It plans to serve thousands of passengers a year with three flights a day, and it may eventually offer orbital flights as well.
Oñate’s expedition charted new territory, but it did not revolutionize the means of transportation. Spaceport America does both. In accomplishing an astonishing extension to humanity’s accessibility to outer space, Spaceport America seems to have burst forth from the mind of Zeus. In reality, however, it is simply the next chapter in an eight-decade-long series of programs, experiments, and incredible events tucked away in the unpretentious expanses of the New Mexico desert. From the first launch of animals (fruit flies) into space in 1947 until the first purpose-built commercial spaceport (offering even recreational space travel) in 2011, New Mexico has provided fertile soil for the growth of space travel for fun and profit.