Dispatch NM: Space exploration by way of New Mexico

Did you know that New Mexico has a “space trail”?

It includes more than 50 specific locations around the state and spans the ages—from a mountaintop called Wizard’s Roost in Lincoln County, where prehistoric New Mexicans aligned stones to the summer and winter solstices, to the Socorro County’s Magdalena Ridge Observatory, one of many modern-day astronomical observatories around the state.

You can find New Mexico Space Trail maps at a couple of choice locations in the Internet—at nmspacemuseum.org and nmspacetrail.com. To see them up close and in person, however, isn’t always so easy, since most of the sites are closed to the public because of preservation or security concerns.

The maps and the information they provide really highlight the fact that New Mexico has a rich history, and a promising future, in space observation and exploration.

Clear nights and higher altitudes have always made the Land of Enchantment a popular stargazing locale. There are at least eight archeo-astronomy sites inside the state, and even more modern-day sites where we continue to interact and explore the skies above us. We even have our own launching pad for spaceships.

Spaceport America, New Mexico’s commercial launching facility in south-central area of the state, gets most of the media attention these days as home to Virgin Galactic’s space-tourism efforts, but that’s only part of what’s out there to see. In fact, just around the corner, four events are being held that are free and open to the pubic.

On Saturday, Oct. 3, you can tour the spaceport, with its relatively new terminal and 12,000-foot runway; the White Sands Missile Range’s Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb as detonated; the Very Large Array, where massive telescopes explore black holes and more; and the state’s very own Museum of Space History in Alamogordo.

Just don’t try to visit them all on that single day. There’s too much New Mexico between them all to make that feasible.

Go to spaceportamerica.com and look under press releases to learn more and find links to the Oct. 3 planned events.

I’ve visited three of those four, having failed to make it to one of the two Trinity Site openings a year, so I think I can say with amateurish authority that they’re well worth the visits. Spaceport America is certainly one of the more contemporary developments in New Mexico’s love affair with space and high-altitude travel, but it’s certainly not the only one. Our landscape is replete with other space-related facilities.

For one thing, New Mexico has a strong Air Force presence, with bases at Clovis, Alamogordo and Albuquerque. And there are numerous research and test facilities, mainly in the Albuquerque and Las Cruces areas, along with the White Sands Missile Range, which was known as the White Sands Proving Ground more than a half-century ago when the space age was born there.

In 1929, physicist and inventor Robert Goddard, widely regarded as the father of modern rocketry, relocated to Roswell to build and test his rockets. Then, in 1945, scientist Wernher von Braun launched the first V2 rocket into space, ushering in the space age.

And of course, there’s the 1947 report of a “flying saucer” being found several miles outside Roswell. The Air Force retracted the story, but the incident lives on to this day, and led to the founding of the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell.

Since the heady first days of the space age, New Mexico’s space industry has grown with Sandia National Laboratories, a non-nuclear testing facility at Kirtland Air Force Base, the National Solar Observatory at Sunspot near Cloudcroft and many other space-related facilities around the state.

Such facilities are generally funded through private grants or by the government, but the number of for-profit companies in the state is growing. The state Economic Development Department lists more than 50 space-related companies headquartered or doing business in New Mexico.

But finding hard data about the space industry’s contribution to the New Mexico economy is difficult. Online, there are readily available statistics on the aviation industry and its 61 public-use airports around the state, but internet searches for data specific to the space industry doesn’t turn up much. That’s because a lot of it is classified information.

Suffice is to say, one space industry observer has said its contribution to New Mexico’s economy is in the billions of dollars.

The state’s Museum of Space History calls New Mexico “the cradle of America’s space exploration.” But it’s more than that. It’s where we’ve been looking to the stars and wondering about our place in the universe, from before recorded history to this very day and time.

That makes New Mexico more than just a rural, sparsely populated state. It makes us forward thinkers—and that’s something to be proud of.

Tom McDonald writes this column for newspapers around the state as founder and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and is also the Roswell Daily Record’s general manager. He may be reached at tmcdonald@gazettemediaservices.com or tmcdonald@rdrnews.com.