THE LONG ROAD TO TOMORROW
(originally run: December 16, 2005)
The long and winding road
That leads to your door . . .
The Beatles, 1970
The road is actually fairly straight, for the most part, although it certainly has its rises and dips, which causes it to bear an uncanny resemblance to a rollercoaster ride if one takes it at a fast enough speed. It is certainly fairly long some 24 miles from the freeway exit to the destination of interest. It's a dusty road for now, anyway so one probably doesn't want to have to travel behind someone else. And it's a road that this author had the occasion to travel down this past Wednesday afternoon.
The road in question leads to the future site of the Southwest Regional Spaceport, in the New Mexico desert between the small towns of Upham and Engle, near the track of the famed Jornada del Muerto. At present the site is little more than a barren patch of desert wasteland, but in the mind's eye one can see that within the not-too-distant future this site will become one of the premier locations where humanity meets the universe.
The road through time to the Spaceport has also been long, but unlike its physical counterpart it has also been quite winding. In some respects the journey began back in the 1940s, when expatriated German rocket scientists led by Wernher von Braun began launching V-2 rockets from the nearby White Sands Proving Ground (now White Sands Missile Range). Based upon this heritage and the missile-launching legacy of White Sands, and with the realization that commercial spaceflight was an idea whose time had come, during the early 1990s a dedicated team of individuals this author among them began advocating for the development of a commercial spaceport here in southern New Mexico.
One program already in development at that time showcased in a very visible manner the feasibility of such an idea. This was the Delta Clipper Experimental (DC-X) prototype Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO) rocket, developed by McDonnell Douglas Aerospace under the Strategic Defense Initiative although its principle designers William Gaubatz and former astronaut Pete Conrad were clearly eyeing it as a prototype for an eventual commercial vehicle. The DC-X performed several test flights from White Sands during the mid-1990s before a maintenance error resulted in its demise during a landing pad accident in 1996.
In the wake of the DC-X NASA initiated the X-33 program in an effort to develop a fully reusable suborbital rocket, which was eventually expected to lead to the development of a reusable commercial vehicle capable of reaching orbit. The winning contractor for X-33, Lockheed Martin, chose Edwards Air Force Base in California as the site of its test flights, but subsequently chose New Mexico's proposed spaceport as the primary site for its expected commercial vehicle, dubbed VentureStar. Unfortunately, the X-33 developed problems, particularly with its fuel tank, during its development stages, and the entire program was cancelled in early 2001 before it had made any test flights.
After additional false starts, such as the initiated, then cancelled, Space Launch Initiative program, the tide shifted dramatically in mid-2004 when the X-Prize Foundation announced that it had chosen New Mexico's proposed spaceport as the site of its annual series of X-Prize Cup competitions. The X-Prize itself, the brainchild of St. Louis businessman Peter Diamandis, was an award of $10 million to the first private effort that could launch a rocket vehicle carrying the weight equivalent of three people on two suborbital flights within a two-week period; this prize was won by California-based aviator Burt Rutan and his firm Scaled Composites in October 2004.
The X-Prize Cup, which follows from the original X-Prize, is meant to be a periodic series of competitive events that will showcase commercially-developed spaceflight vehicles, with the ultimate goal of using these as a springboard for the development of a full commercial space industry that will eventually include the taking of paying passengers to space.
The initial X-Prize Cup event was an exhibition that was held at the Las Cruces airport two months ago, and the next one or two such events are also expected to be held at that location. However, with development of the spaceport now scheduled to begin within the near future, subsequent X-Prize Cup events are slated to be held there.
The X-Prize Foundation's commitment to the Southwest Regional Spaceport has now brought other players as well to the scene, including some of the contestants of the original X-Prize. One of these, the British-based Starchaser Industries, is scheduled to make the first commercial launch from the spaceport site in March 2006.
And now a new major player is on the scene. Following the successful X-Prize winning flight last year, British entrepreneur Richard Branson announced the formation of a new company, Virgin Galactic, whose goal is to offer rides to space for paying passengers. At the ceremony at the spaceport site which this author attended on Wednesday, Branson announced that Virgin Galactic will be building its world headquarters at, and will be operating out of, the Southwest Regional Spaceport. In addition to the tremendous economic impact this effort this will bring to southern New Mexico, it serves notice that New Mexico will be on the forefront of humanity's journey to space.
So the long, winding road, begun so many years ago, is reaching fruition at last. At the conclusion of Wednesday's ceremony some model rockets were fired off by some area school children, and as this author began the drive down the long, straight, dusty road towards home, he couldn't help thinking that, while those rockets may not necessarily have been the first ever launched from the spaceport site, they will certainly not be the last.
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