On the New Mexico Space Trail: a closer look at the state's intergalactic attractions

From Spaceport America to the Kilbourne Hole, we traverse the 52-site route

Spaceport America was once home to Virgin Galactic’s mother craft ‘White Knight Two’ and ‘SpaceShipTwo’. Courtesy Spaceport America
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Surprisingly, Chuck was fine. No disorientation, only a little dizziness and a brief but nonetheless alarming eye oscillation associated with a short-lived fright. And so his much-anticipated 20th wedding anniversary present was a bit of a let-down. 

An American teenager was next to be strapped into MAT, the G-shock simulator and star attraction at the 7,300-hectare Spaceport America. It is the world's first purpose-­built commercial space flight centre, in the Jornada del Muerto desert, about 40 kilometres from the city of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. "Let's do the Nasa pitch, yaw and roll," said an overexcited family member as the gimbals of the multi-axis space exploration trainer began to wiggle and shudder. Then, with a creak or two, MAT tumbled and spun. "May the centrifugal force be with you," shouted one of the teen's siblings.

MAT stopped before the man-boy's cheeks collapsed and his eyes bulged as a result of the G-force. He jumped out of the contraption, a type of which was used to test the physiological effects of rapid acceleration on prospective astronauts for the Mercury programme, the very first US space flight project.

He wasn't very wobbly. He just shrugged and proclaimed that zorbing was cooler and more fun. He boasted that he could be an astronaut any day, because "Gs are no big deal". Welcomed back into the arms of his family, he rapidly accelerated towards one of the many interactive – and stationary – kiosks, and the hands-on, 91-centimetre wall projection screens, to enjoy some average-quality space education game time.

On the Final Frontier Tour

Both Chuck and the young man are part of a tour group I am with, on the New Mexico Space Trail. The route encompasses museums, archaeological sites, laboratories and Spaceport America, which opened in 2011 but suffered from revenue shortfalls among other problems. It has since relaunched with the Final Frontier Tour (the one I am on). It begins at a 1930s adobe building – a former police station – on S Foch Street and lasts four hours.

For $50 (Dh184), the tour transports the state's pioneering space tourists from the visitor centre, and vast merchandising space, by limousine van with "multimedia theatre platforms" (or, put simply, TV screens) out to the site. This is home to a huge, empty, reusable 3,700-metre apron and runway / taxiway; East Zone spacesuit dressing room; suborbital passenger departure lounge area and terminal; 15,540 square kilometres of protected overhead airspace; as well as an unfeasibly giant and largely empty double-height hangar, which once housed Virgin Galactic's mother craft White Knight Two and SpaceShipTwo. Tour groups are also taken through the $210 million payload launch facilities to get a feel for the rocket-­friendly environment available for hire for commercial shoots, music videos, film locations and signature events such as brand launches.

FM539J 1968 - Buggy ride on the moon: James B. Irwin (left) and David R. Scott, Apollo 15 astronauts, try out a vehicle similar to the lunar roving vehicle called the ''Grover'', during a training session at the Rio Grande Gorge, Taos, New Mexico, on geological features expected to be similar to the Hadley Appenine area of the moon, where they are expected to land in late July. © Keystone Pictures USA/ZUMAPRESS.com/Alamy Live News
 ‘Apollo 15’ crew members James Irwin, left, and David Scott practise driving a lunar vehicle in New Mexico. Alamy Stock

Because of its myriad issues, the centre's anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic, which was founded by Sir Richard Branson in 2004, uses the Mojave Air and Space Port instead, and the company intends to move its operations to Grottaglie in the heel of Italy. That is where it is offering its trips around the Earth, for which Brad Pitt, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and Leonardo DiCaprio are all rumoured to be among those who have pre-booked their seats. The return fare is ­reportedly £250,000 (Dh1.2m).

Meanwhile, it takes 20 minutes and costs about $150 to charter a flight to "the Moon" and back by helicopter from Dona Ana County International Jetport, but you can also get there by jeep using GPS. And by that I mean another fascinating New Mexico feature: the Kilbourne Hole, a volcanic crater about 92 metres deep located about 50km west of El Paso, Texas, in Dona Ana County. It is about 80,000 years old and, for two of those years, it was used as a stand-in for the Moon. Between 1969 and 1971, Nasa astronauts and backup crew for six Apollo space missions trained among the reddish purple basalt cliffs and hundreds of sand dunes. These astronauts included Alan Shepard, commander of Apollo 14, who became the oldest man to walk on the Moon, at 47 years old, not to mention the only person to play golf on it.

From Kilbourne Hole to the Very Large Array Radio Telescope

American geologist Harrison Schmitt, who was born in New Mexico, was the most recent man to walk on the Moon, taking those steps on December 14, 1972 as a member of the Apollo 17 crew.

Schmitt brought back the plutonic Trocolite 76535 sample and later became a senator for his home state. He also tripped and fell during his Moon walk. But that is another story.

Kilbourne Hole is part of the Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument and about 174km from Spaceport America. It is also about 100km from the US Army's White Sands Missile Base, the largest military base in the US, where rockets were first tested in the 1930s. This range is also on the space trail, and boasts a museum with exhibits and its own Hall of Fame that is free to roam around.

KRNGC5 Kilbourne Hole NM
Nasa trained its astronauts at Kilbourne Hole between 1969 and 1971.

In total, there are 52 sites on New Mexico’s famed Space Trail. This includes the National Solar Observatory at Sunspot in the Lincoln National Forest, Roswell (the scene of an alleged alien spacecraft crash in the 1950s), the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, and the New Mexico Museum of Space History, which is home to the Space Hall of Fame. This has a planetarium and space shuttle landing simulator. Buried in front of the flagpoles is Ham, who in 1961 became the first chimp in space.

Perhaps the most impressive site on the trail, however, is the Very Large Array Radio Telescope – a line of 27 satellite dishes 25 metres wide that weigh 230 tonnes and are used to research pulsars and black holes.

Other sites dedicated to space exploration

America is filled with tributes to the country’s explorations of space. Elsewhere, the Astrogeological Science Centre in Flagstaff, Arizona, is where you can see Apollo 15’s Grover lunar vehicle. A man-made crater was created at Cinder Lakes for lunar rover simulations and practising soil sampling.

Nasa astronauts have also trained at Arizona's Sunset and Meteor craters, Colorado's San Juan Mountains, Nevada's McCullough Range and the Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. They have even ventured outside the US, such as to Askja, a caldera in Iceland.

Elon Musk's SpaceX Big Falcon Rocket is based in Hawthorne, California, while the company has a test facility in McGregor, Texas and launch sites at Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

Blue Origin, the space flight company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is based in Washington state. Its first rocket, Charon, launched from Lake Moses in 2005 and is now in Seattle's Museum of Flight. The company has a launch site in West Texas.  

Back at Spaceport America, the only thing moving in this desert basin is MAT. At the end of our Final Frontier Tour, one member of the group says the trip back to the centre is a flight-testing exercise in itself. "The tour to the final frontier was over before it started," says another unimpressed visitor. "So, pure time travel."