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Touring Spaceport America

(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 catmillsap@gmail.com


  

50 Years Since Glenn Orbited Earth

John Glenn plans to mark the 50th anniversary of his historic spaceflight with a series of events at Ohio State University, including a special dinner and a live chat with crew members aboard the International Space Station. The former astronaut and senator from Ohio became the first American to orbit Earth on Feb. 20, 1962. The trip helped the United States catch up to the Soviet Union's accomplishments in space, and Glenn says he thinks it was a turning point for America's national psyche. The 90-year-old is now the namesake of a public affairs school at Ohio State/Associated Press. (AP/NASA file photo: In this Feb. 20, 1962 file photo, astronaut John Glenn climbs into the Friendship 7 space capsule atop an Atlas rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla.)

Question: Do you remember what you were doing when you heard an American had orbited the Earth?

Shuttle’s Final Flight Today

NASA’s final four shuttle astronauts boarded Atlantis for liftoff today on the last flight of the 30-year program, even as potential rainstorms threatened to delay the launch. Forecasters stuck to their original 70 percent chance of bad weather, as the veteran crew climbed aboard the spacecraft. NASA was hopeful. “We do have a shot at this today,” launch director Mike Leinbach assured his team. Commander Christopher Ferguson gave a thumbs up as he was strapped in after sunrise despite the still-iffy launch prospects. On his way to the spacecraft, Ferguson had jokingly beckoned for more applause, clapping his hands at one point. The astronauts posed for pictures before boarding/Associated Press. More here. (AP photo: The space shuttle Atlantis astronauts leave the operations and check out building on their way to the pad at the Kennedy Space Center this morning.)

Question: Do you agree with the decision to end the shuttle program?

Morgan: Show kids ‘adults do the right thing’

Asked what kids can learn from the space program, Barbara Morgan, teacher, retired astronaut, and current distinguished educator in residence at Boise State University, said, “What’s worth risking and what isn’t worth risking. Doing the right things when things go bad, learning from our mistakes. An example of that is after the Challenger accident when NASA asked if I would continue on the program. We had kids all over the country watching to see what adults do in a bad situation, a horrible situation, and I felt it was really important that we show them that adults do the right thing … we figure out what we did wrong, try to fix it the best we can and keep moving forward.”

She added, “I think also they can learn a lot about courage, I think courage is really contagious. They can learn about the wonders of the universe. There is so much out there, and in 50 years of space exploration, we have learned a lot, but we really know almost nothing. It’s just a place for never-ending, open-ended opportunities and possibilities.” You can read my Q-and-A with Morgan here at spokesman.com, and listen to audio from the full interview here.

APhoto Of The Day — 4.16.10

The four female astronauts currently on the International Space Station, clockwise from lower right: Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, Stephanie Wilson, Tracy Caldwell Dyson, and Naoko Yamazaki pose for a photo in the Cupola while space shuttle Discovery remains docked with the station Wednesday.  (AP Photo/NASA)

Top Cutlines:

#1 After being over-served too many drinks from a downtown establishment, the conversation with the smart women started to make my head spin. couergenx

#2 Men are from Mars, Women are from where ever they happen to land!!!! formerlysandpoint

#3 Being unable to amicably decide who was going to sit behind who for the picture, the ladies determined they would all sit in front. CharlesDixon

State lawmakers to help choose kids for new NASA program for Idaho students

Item: Online program connects Idaho students, NASA/Betsy Z. Russell, S-R

More Info: Bright, advanced Idaho high school juniors can now compete to get into a new science and math online class and summer academy offered in partnership with NASA - in part by impressing a local state legislator. Or, perhaps, just knowing one. “We would like to get state lawmakers involved in this, in endorsing students from their legislative district,” said Idaho Department of Education spokeswoman Melissa McGrath. “Legislators would be involved in the review of applications and helping to select the students … they’d have a big role in choosing which student goes.”

Question: Is this a good role for elected lawmakers?

State lawmakers to help choose kids for new NASA program for Idaho students

Bright, advanced Idaho high school juniors can now compete to get into a new online science and math course offered in partnership with NASA - in part by impressing a local state legislator. Or, perhaps, just knowing one. “We would like to get state lawmakers involved in this, in endorsing students from their legislative district,” said Idaho Department of Education spokeswoman Melissa McGrath. “Legislators would be involved in the review of applications and helping to select the students. … they’d have a big role in choosing which student goes.” You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna joined astronaut Barbara Morgan, now a distinguished educator in residence at Boise State University, to announce the new program Thursday. It’s modeled after a similar, award-winning program in Texas; there’s also one in Virginia, making Idaho the third state to launch a “Science and Aerospace Scholars Program.” Both Texas and Virginia also involve state lawmakers in “endorsing” kids for the program. McGrath said, “The goal is to get legislators involved in this program and more involved in their local school districts and the public education system, by seeing what students are doing, what their goals are, what they’re working toward. … Also, these students are representatives of Idaho when they go to the summer academy, so we think it’s important to have our local elected officials involved.”

Students who are successful in the rigorous online course, which is aligned to state education standards, could earn an expense-paid trip to a special NASA academy in California next summer. Click here for more info.

Would You Drink it?

Evidently, the economic crisis has hit NASA hard. These poor astronauts must have been awfully thirsty: http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2009/may/21/astronauts-toast-nasa-ingenuity-sip-recycled-urine/

 

I’m all for recycling, but thoughts of a sweat and urine cocktail make me queasy.

 

Would you drink recycled urine? What’s the most unusual drink you’ve consumed?

 

 

I’m Going to Exercise on the COLBERT!

My friend was browsing Yahoo the other day, when she found a story about how Stephen Colbert, of Comedy Central fame, pretty much rigged the vote for the name of the new space module. NASA held a vote for what the name of the module should be, with a space for write-in votes. Colbert, on his show, asked his viewers to vote for ‘The Colbert.’ Overwhelmingly, they did, and it won the vote, with 230,000 votes. NASA decided to name the module the Tranquility instead.

However, they will be calling the treadmill that astronauts exercise on the “‘Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill.” The COLBERT. Yeah. Stephen Colbert has a treadmill named after him. You can find more about this here.

Do you think that the majority vote should have won?