Everything You Need to Know About Spaceport America: The Future Home of Space Tourism
Beam us up, Scotty!
Staring down the barrel of pandemic year three might have you wishing you could get far, far away. Off-planet, even. “Beam me up, Scotty” or “James Webb Telescope stowaway” far. And in the vast desert of central New Mexico, there’s a place where you can do just that—or at least, theoretically.
Located just outside the town of Truth or Consequences, Spaceport America opened in 2011 as the world’s first commercial spaceport. (Yes, that’s an airport, but for flights to space.) Their anchor tenant, space tourism company Virgin Galactic, made history with the launch of the VSS Unity 22 crewed test flight back in July 2021, capturing the world’s attention and seriously pissing off Jeff Bezos. With two pilots and four crew members aboard—including billionaire founder Sir Richard Branson, deemed Astronaut 001 for the mission—SpaceShipTwo flew about five miles beyond the boundaries of Earth before safely touching back down again.
Curtis Rosemond, who leads guided tours of the spaceport, witnessed the launch himself. “The crowd was quiet just before the aircraft left the ground, and then you could hear this loud roar of applause,” he said. “[When] VSS Unity successfully touched ground…you could hear the crowd cheering from a mile away. You could see some people with tears of joy running down their faces. It was a day that I will always remember.”
“So many have said Unity 22 was reminiscent of watching the first historic moon landing,” said Aleanna Crane, Virgin Galactic’s VP, Communications. “Which is incredible to think about, as it was that very moment that first inspired Richard Branson to pursue space travel.”
It was Branson himself who, just after the flight, perhaps best summed up the moment’s significance: "Welcome to the dawn of a new space age.”
With cosmic tourism growing more tangible by the day, here’s everything you need to know about Spaceport America, why New Mexico is the future home of space travel, and how long it’ll be before you’re vacationing alongside the astronauts.
Why is Spaceport America based in Truth or Consequences?
At about 45 minutes from downtown T or C, Spaceport America is, at best, in the middle of nowhere. At worst, it’s in the cactus-and-rattlesnake-filled part of the 1,590-mile El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro that Spanish conquistadors once called the Jornada del Muerto, or “Dead Man’s Journey.”
It may seem an odd choice to plant a spaceport in rural New Mexico: one of the least populous states in the Union, many people have never been, and some others think you need a passport to visit (nope, it’s part of the US!). But the region’s long history of scientific breakthroughs make it a solid candidate as the future home of space travel.
During the 40s, the government studied early rocketry in nearby White Sands; here, they launched the rocket that captured the first-ever photo of Earth taken from space and detonated the first atomic bomb at Trinity Test Site. White Sands conducts secret tests to this day, making it a highly protected military base and a no-fly zone—meaning Spaceport America doesn’t need any air traffic control, since there are no other aircraft for miles around (assuming New Mexico’s famous UFOs don’t decide to make an appearance).
On top of that, the spaceport sits at an elevation of 4,595 feet, meaning spaceships don’t need to fly as far to escape the atmosphere. (The local joke is that “the first mile’s for free.”) Plus, there’s the weather: According to the local chamber of commerce, the area enjoys “sunshine for an average of 350 days per year, low humidity, and no air pollution,” all of which is important for launches: clouds, fog, smog, rain, and storms create dangerous conditions that can thwart even the best-laid plans.
“The wide expanse of open country, the clear airspace, the excellent weather,” Branson said at the dedication ceremony for the runway. “Where else would you build Spaceport America?” And besides, if tourists will go out of their way to see the World's Largest Ball of Twine, it’s surely safe to assume they’ll drive an hour into the desert to go to suborbital space.
What can you do at Spaceport America?
Beyond Virgin Galactic’s flights, the spaceport hosts engine testing, drone testing, and rocket launches by communications and defense companies. One company even sends the deceased into space: You can choose to memorialize your late loved ones by launching their ashes out and back or by straight-up sending them into space forever. In fact, the first successful launch at Spaceport America primarily carried cremated human remains, including those of astronaut Gordon Cooper and Star Trek actor James Doohan, who played Scotty.
Really. Scotty was literally beamed up from New Mexico.
Virgin designed the interior of the main terminal and hangar—the “Gateway to Space”—which houses pre-flight facilities for astronauts, a command center, and a restaurant for families of the astronauts to relax in while their loved ones zip out into the mesosphere and back. There’s also a small museum that chronicles the history and eco-friendly design of the spaceport, and a zero-gravity simulator that’ll give you the nauseatingly real feel of a space launch.
Currently, the Spaceport is technically closed to the public, but you can take a tour with Curtis Rosemond’s company Final Frontier, the only group licensed to take visitors inside. A tour includes an insider peek at the command center, the terminal building, and the huge fire and rescue center, where you get to meet the firefighters and paramedics and climb around in state-of-the-art fire trucks, which is frankly excellent.
When can I go to space?
With one successful launch on the books, space tourism for the masses feels closer at hand than ever before. Though it’s nowhere near cheap right now—tickets cost a mere $450,000/seat, the kind of spare change we’re sure you could find stuck between your couch cushions right now—Virgin Galactic claims it wants to make space travel accessible to everyday travelers as soon as possible.
Aleanna Crane says the company is on course to begin commercial flights at the end of 2022 and plans to add a second spaceship, VSS Imagine, to its fleet in early 2023. “We expect to launch commercial service in Q4 of , achieving our long-term vision of offering routine, reliable, and safe access to space. By that time, we anticipate confirming our first 1,000 private astronauts, welcoming them into our Future Astronaut community, of which we already have 700.”
There are—understandably—ethical and environmental concerns around space tourism, and some have criticized billionaire-funded space programs as frivolous and irresponsible when climate change and wealth inequality threatens humanity on a global scale. Spaceport America’s executive director, Scott McLaughlin, argued on the company’s podcast that tourism has always been at the forefront of cutting-edge technology. “[At first], it was the wealthy who could afford [cell phones and plane travel] and that’s kind of what’s happening with these short rides to space.” (Whether that justifies the actions of the mega-rich is seriously up for debate.)
The next step in space travel, said McLaughlin, will be flying from one spaceport to another; instead of being weightless for just a few minutes, you could be weightless for up to half an hour as you fly from one side of the world to the other. Even more next-level, we—meaning those with an expendable, uh, $5 million for a three-night stay—might soon be able to stay overnight in space. The Gateway Foundation, in collaboration with Orbital Assembly, recently announced plans to open the first space hotel by 2027, describing it as “a destination hotel, a low Earth orbit cruise ship, or a city in space,” with hotel rooms, restaurants, exercise facilities, bars, research pods, and more.
Until then, space tourism done from the ground can whet your appetite for exploring the firmament. Along with Final Frontier’s regular tours, hit White Sands National Park for superior stargazing and bi-annual excursions to Trinity Test Site; venture east to Roswell to spot the extraterrestrials we might soon call neighbors; or let Truth or Consequences be your jumping-off point to the titanic satellite dishes of the Very Large Array. All of the above make it clear why New Mexico has long been a prime place to get acquainted with the cosmos.