Early one clear, still morning this past May, I slipped out of the funky old hot-springs town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and headed southeast into the high desert. As a reddish sky gave way to sunrise over the San Andres Mountains, I crossed a stretch of arid wilderness so harsh and unforgiving that 17th-century Spanish explorers called it the Jornada del Muerto: the Journey of the Dead Man. The bumpy country road wound deeper into the scrubland until at last an undulating shape appeared in the distance. As I got closer, I could see it was in fact a hangar, shaped a bit like a giant crab, built into a berm. Just beyond it, a tabletop-flat slab of concrete runway stretched for two miles. There, on an arid patch of land surrounded by ancient mesas, was my destination: Spaceport America, the world’s first complex built solely for commercial space exploration.
The day’s main event was the launch of a 20-foot-tall rocket owned by Colorado-based UP Aerospace, one of two permanent tenants at the state-run facility. Clouds of dirt, dust, and flames billowed out from beneath the craft as it lifted. No one was aboard, unless you count the cremated remains of about 20 people. Relatives of the dead had paid up to $1,295 so that a gram or more of their beloved’s ashes could take a ride aboard a rocket that briefly touched the face of the cosmos, peaking 73.5 miles above Earth, before dropping back down to the ground a half hour later. “Boomers want something that’s personal, that says something distinctive about the life they lived,” explains Charles M. Chafer, CEO of Celestis, a Houston company that brokers the unusual service by soliciting funeral directors around the country.
The rest of the rocket’s manifest was a collection worthy of a bazaar in Marrakech: wedding rings from Tokyo, Harley-Davidson pins from a local motorcycle dealer, and a flag from a Swedish high school, with room left over for a classified U.S. Air Force parcel and 27 student science experiments. One experiment tested the effects of electricity harnessed from mechanical vibrations on a New Mexican–grown chili pepper (not enough to cook it thoroughly, it turned out); another examined how high up a cell phone and a satellite phone could go before they stopped receiving text messages. Such is the offbeat nature of the emerging commercial spaceflight industry.
After it all whooshed into the clouds without incident, hundreds of schoolchildren cheered exuberantly, and UP Aerospace was celebrating its eighth successful launch in four years. The launch also marked a small victory for the politicians of New Mexico who created Spaceport America in 2004 with more than $200 million in taxpayer dollars as part of an ambitious plan to capitalize on new technology and stimulate economic growth. (Florida, California, Texas, and Oklahoma are also vying for a piece of the private space business.) UP Aerospace is the spaceport’s most active lessee, but state officials, who are now grappling with a projected $450 million shortfall for 2012, are pinning their investment hopes on the facility’s other, much bigger, and far more celebrated client. That would be Virgin Galactic (VG), the pet project of British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, whose nascent spaceliner may be just a year or two away from becoming the first private company to blast paying passengers into space.
Virgin Galactic occupies 110,000 square feet of the Spaceport America complex, half of which will form a hangar for five rocket ships (called SpaceShipTwo, or SS2) and a “mother ship” jet aircraft (WhiteKnightTwo). On a typical journey, the mother ship will take off from the runway and ferry SS2, carrying a two-pilot crew and six passengers, to a height of 50,000 feet. At that point, SS2 will break loose, start its own engines, and continue upward. Some 69 miles above Earth, in a darkening void, customers will experience a few minutes of weightlessness and gaze out the window at the curvature of their planetary home. After the fuel runs out and the craft reaches its apogee, it will essentially become a glider, sliding back toward the vast desert to touch down on the runway at Spaceport America. Inside the terminal, now half built, friends and loved ones of those who paid $200,000 each to slip the surly bonds of Earth will relax in a plasma TV–bedecked lounge with a view of the control room and launchpad and watch in real time.
Already more than 440 customers have plunked down a total of $57 million in deposits for a seat aboard Branson’s ship, lining up to make history and, in the process, turn America’s space policy upside down. With NASA’s announcement that the 30-year-old space shuttle program would end after the touchdown of Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center this summer, the iconic agency has, for now, abandoned the concept of government-built manned spacecraft. Over the next few years, American astronauts will be forced to hitch rides on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to reach the International Space Station (ISS). The agency’s plans to send humans to Mars or an asteroid are in deep freeze. And so, exactly 50 years after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly into space, there has never been a less exciting time to be an official, capital-A Astronaut, in the pioneering mold of an Alan Shepard or a Neil Armstrong. Yet at the same time, space travel has never been so within
reach of private citizens—of people one might call, as Virgin Galactic does, small-a astronauts.