Following the space trails through New Mexico

Here’s something you might not know: New Mexico has a “space trail,” which spans the ages at more than 50 locations around the state.

From a mountaintop called Wizard’s Roost in Lincoln County, where prehistoric New Mexicans aligned stones to the summer and winter solstices, to Socorro County’s Magdalena Ridge Observatory, one of many modern-day astronomical observatories around the state, New Mexico is steeped in the history and development of space observation and exploration.

You can find New Mexico Space Trail maps at a couple of choice locations on the Internet—at nmspacemuseum.org and nmspacetrail.com—but if you want to see these sites up close and in person, that’s not so easy. Most of them are closed to the public because of preservation or security concerns.

The Space Trail highlights the fact that New Mexico has both a rich history and 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 with and explore the skies above. We even have our own launching pad for spaceships.

Spaceport America, New Mexico’s commercial launching facility in south-central area of the state, is home to Virgin Galactic’s space-tourism efforts. A test flight that exploded about 46,000 feet up about three years ago, killing one of two pilots, set back Richard Branson’s announced plan to launch tourists into space from Spaceport America, but press reports now have him saying the flights will begin next year. Expect a lot of international attention being given to the Truth Or Consequences area if/when it happens.

In a less-sensational sense, New Mexico is also home to the Very Large Array about 50 miles west of Socorro, where massive telescopes explore black holes and more; the National Solar Observatory at Sunspot, where the physics of the sun is being studied; and the Museum of Space History in Alamogordo.

Over the years I’ve visited such places, so I think I can say with amateurish authority that they’re well worth the visits. I particularly like the visitor center and the walk among what I’d call the super-size satellite dishes but what are actually massive radio telescopes, which are moved around on railroad tracks so they can scan the crevices of our universe.

New Mexico’s landscape is replete with air- and space-related facilities. We have 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 — 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 New Mexico, where he built and tested 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 in infamy, 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 listed 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 can be 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.

The state’s Museum of Space History calls New Mexico “the cradle of America’s space exploration.” It’s where humans have been looking to the stars and wondering about our place in the universe since before recorded history.

That makes New Mexico more than just a rural, sparsely populated state. At least when it comes to a future in space, we are forward thinkers.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this column was released in 2015. It has been rewritten and updated for release today.

Tom McDonald is editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. He can be reached at tmcdonald@gazettemediaservices.com.