(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
Standing under a blazing sun, on a wide, pristine, concrete runway shooting like an arrow across the high New Mexico desert, it occurred to me that so often travel is about visiting a place where something big happened in the past. Where, in some subtle or dramatic way, the world changed forever. It’s not often that you get there first. That you get a chance to stand where big things are going to happen, before history is made.
But now, 55 miles out of Las Cruces, New Mexico, another 30 miles beyond Truth or Consequences, a quirky little town so keen for a place on the big map it took the name of a television game show; on 18,000 acres of land adjacent to the White Sands Missile Range, country as wide and empty as anything can be, Spaceport America, the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport, is taking shape on the dry desert landscape.
There are organized tours to the remote location and I jumped at the chance to join one. On the way we rode past the Elephant Butte Dam, the 1919 monolith that tamed the wild Rio Grande River and we traveled along the El Camino Real, the Royal Road that connected the region to Mexico City, the path by which explorers and settlers came to the land that would become New Mexico.
At Spaceport America, two buildings are already constructed. We toured Virgin Galactic’s “Gateway to Space” terminal and hangar, and the SOC, Space Port Operations Center. The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo will carry commercial passengers who will pay for the two to three-hour flight into suborbital space. The first flight is projected to take off in late 2013, carrying Sir Richard Branson and his two adult children. After that the more than 500 people who have reserved seats on the $200,000 flights will get their turn. It will be possible to watch these flights from the terminal.
Having grown up with the space race, watching flicking television images of serious-faced men in white shirts and thin black ties smile and shake hands and pat one another on the back after each successful rocket launch, and having raised four children, all of whom developed a keen interest in space during the Shuttle years—two of my daughters are Space Camp alumnae—I find it all fascinating. Fascinating enough to take a drive through the desert to a place where, according to the Spaceport America promotional materials, in addition to scientific missions and small satellites, tourists will be the next space payload.
Like the others on the tour, I posed for a photo on the “spaceway,” the runway that will launch this new space age. Who knows? Maybe one of my children or even a grandchild will be a space tourist. By that time prices will have come down and the trip, while still a form of luxury travel, will be routine. But I can always show them the photo of me standing in the New Mexico desert, laughing, my arms outstretched like wings, as proof that once upon a time, I got there first.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a Spokane-based travel writer. Her essays can be heard each week on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org