Two recent accidents of commercial spacecraft, including Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo crash, have raised doubts in some people's minds about the viability of Spaceport America, which was built for space tourism as well as scientific spaceflight. Dirk C. Gibson, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico offered his perspective in an op-ed column in the November 30, 2014, issue of the Albuquerque Journal. Here are a few excerpts:

In my opinion, space tourism will begin within two years, despite these accidents. This embryonic industry is at an advanced stage of development, and I think it is reasonable to expect the initiation of public spaceflight very soon....

Not only have some media reports exaggerated the significance of these tragic accidents, there is considerable reason to appreciate the imminence of commercial space tourism....

In this era of privatized space development, it is up to the private sector to create the space infrastructure and spacecraft and obtain the operational experience to facilitate space exploration and personal spaceflight.

Space tourism will be an exciting personal experience, but perhaps a more compelling reason behinc commercial space development is to provide an off-planet capacity for the human species.

To add another perspective, I (Loretta Hall) recall that the beginnings of NASA's original manned space programs experienced significant failures on the way to human lunar exploration. In this regard, I quote Gene Kranz, who was a procedures officer for the Mercury program and a flight director for Gemini and Apollo:

In April 1961, we had blown up our second Atlas rocket. We immediately turned around and started the preparation for Alan Shepard [America's first manned spaceflight]. So it was sort of a not-so-good feeling.... The reason we were able to get to the Moon in ten years was because, intelligently, we addressed the issue of risk. We recognized that chances were small, risk high, but it was a worthwhile risk to take. And we developed into damned good risk managers. Today, we are so risk averse. When John Glenn flew America's first manned orbital flight, in 1962, two of the previous five rockets had blown up. Now, can you think about putting a man on a rocket today, where you've only had five test flights and two failed?

Every October, the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium sponsors a unique conference called the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS). The 2014 conference was the tenth of these annual meetings, which bring together leaders of the commercial space industry. This year's theme was "The Power of Ten." The following comments from participants illustrate the importance of this conference:

Pat Hynes, Director of the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium and the NASA Experimental Program for Competitive Research:
"We're talking about power for the next two days. The "Power of Ten" refers not only to our anniversary, but it's also the power of the large numbers that it takes to get us off Earth. Also in terms of dollars. Mastery over the physical power that it takes to make the journey to wherever we go in space safe. The mastering of the political power [and] the economic power to sustain our space program beyond political agendas.

"If we are asking for the power to create the systems that will allow humanity to go to Mars, for example, we have to take the reciprocal responsibility for what we are creating now. In the seed is borne the fruit. Humans can use their mastery over the physical world to sustain the species off Earth if we choose."

Wayne Hale, former NASA Deputy Associate Administrator of Strategic Partnershipe, Space Operations Mission Directorate
"I appreciate ISPCS more than any other conference that I get to go to. I think all the people that are movers and shakers that are actually doing things in the personal and commercial spacecraft world are here."

Doug Young, Vice President for Missile Defense and Advanced Missions for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems:
"A lot of us, in our businesses and other places, talk about diversity and inclusion. I think one of the hallmarks of this conference is the diversity of thought that is brought forward in these presentations and in the rooms on the side. Nowhere do you see this kind of diverse perspective, experience base coming together looking at a tough problem."

Will Hampton, Director of Advanced Space Access for the Boeing Company:
"Everything, no matter how exciting, if you do it day in and day out, will become routine. It's conferences like this that can make us step back and say, 'What we're doing is really exciting.'"

The following is an excerpt from Out of this World: New Mexico's Contributions to Space Travel:
        In 1959, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced Project Mercury, which was designed to send men into orbit around the Earth and return them safely to the ground. For the sake of safety and ultimate success, the daring project would proceed in several phases. Animals would get the honor of going first, making sure the equipment and procedures worked as planned. They would have to learn complex tasks, which they would be expected perform during a space flight to demonstrate whether they could function normally under flight conditions....
        Like humans, the chimps showed various levels of ability. Some "washed out" of the program because they could not endure the long periods of training, or they could not understand or remember the tasks well enough. And some became star pupils.
        The Holloman psychologists even tried to teach the chimps to count. In one experiment, they would flash a number on a screen and reward a chimp if he pressed his lever that number of times. One clever primate named George recognized numbers up to nine and pressed the lever accordingly. A variation of the task was to train chimps to press a lever exactly 50 times. A November 1961 article in the Washington Evening Star reported that "the chimps would pull the lever 'bangity-bangity-bang' about 45 times, then carefully pull Numbers 46, 47, 48, and 49, and finally make pull Number 50 with one hand cupped under the dispenser to receive the reward."
[Looking back, thirty years after your flight, where do you think Manhigh fits within the history of space exploration?] "One thing it certainly deserves credit for is that we made that flight about a month before Sputnik flew, and in that sense, we were truly space pioneers. Before the flight, usually, the official attitude within the Air Force and generally within the country, at that time, was that space research was a misuse of scarce dollars, that it had no military or civilian use, and that we were a bunch of visionaries who were squandering money. (Laughs) Also, when Sputnik did fly, our flight did help Americans feel like we weren't totally behind in foresight and interest in the future. There was some offset to the impact of Sputnik. We had something to point to, also. These things fire the imagination of the young people." David Simons, in his oral history interview for the International Space Hall of Fame program

"To me, working at White Sands and at Holloman was a very exciting time. It was a time of development. I remember when they were doing research on the lunar excursion module. It was a time of working with people that saw into the future. It was working with people who were thinking not of today, but of tomorrow. You never knew from one day to the next and from one month to the next what project you would get assigned to or what development was coming next. You were really on the ground floor of a very wonderful development of the human race." Cynthia Sommers-Guzevich, who had unknowingly worked in Germany on a component of the V-2 missile, immigrated to the United States after World War II, and worked at White Sands Proving Ground on the V-2 program there

"The Manhigh program was the first field testing of a closed survival and life support system for use in spaceflight. That's where we anticipated it would be used, and we took all systems that it takes to keep a man alive. Some of them were very crude, and most of them were under manual, not automatic, control. So when our first basic explorer of threshold in space went up [on its second flight] from Crosby Iron [open pit iron mine in Crosby, Minnesota] and got up to 101,515 feet, Dave Simons did it all in a 32-hour and 10 minute test. We thought it would be warranted for the systems required for survival in a Mercury project, for instance. So, he did all the precursory experimentation for NASA on that one. They were able to take our findings and improve on them, vastly in many cases, and build a Mercury capsule. They took our impact data and built a Mercury couch inside the capsule for takeoff, landing, and other configurations of spaceflight. So, more or less, we did bootleg research on space before space was authorized as an experimental area." -- Dr. John Paul Stapp, who as head of the Aeromedical Field Laboratory at Holloman Air Force Base, conceived and oversaw the Manhigh high-altitude balloon program


Richard Branson is the founder of Virgin Galactic, which he calls the world's first commercial spaceline (analogous to airline). Here are some of his observations about the development of technology:

"The explosive growth of the Internet has resulted in a world in which we have over half a billion servers, each one consuming hundreds of watts. Industries like this would benefit enormously from the ability to launch low-Earth-orbit satellites that could literally take some of the heat out of the planet, for example, by serving someday as the repository of our information technology." -- July 28, 2008, speech

"So the fact that this [WhiteKnightTwo] system will have the capability to launch small payloads and satellites at low cost is hugely important. As far as science is concerned, this system offers tremendous potential to researchers who will be able to fly experiments much more often than before, helping to answer key questions about Earth's climate and the mysteries of the universe." -- July 28, 2008, speech

"Today's generation has the technological ability to do more industrial work up there [in space].... The challenge is to get the technology up there in a safe, reliable and cheap way with minimal environmental impact. Nonreusable rockets launched from the ground based on designs from the 1940s are not the answer. It will come from the private sector working with---and independent of---agencies like NASA to bring new materials and technologies into space." --  in Smithsonian magazine, August 2010.


Wernher von Braun and Frederick Ordway wrote an article, "Astronautical Fallout," for the November 1962 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It included the following statements:

"In astronautics we tend to underestimate what we shall accomplish twenty-five years from now, yet overestimate what we can accomplish tomorrow."

"Whoever said 'The sky's the limit' had no imagination at all."

"[W]e have reached a point in satellite and communication technology where we plan for the first commercial technology in this field. It has been estimated that even though one such satellite in orbit would cost $40 million it would accommodate as much [trans-Atlantic telephone] traffic as a $500 million cable system."


On August 16, 1960, Air Force test pilot Joe Kittinger parachuted from the open gondola of a balloon from an altitude of 102,800 feet over New Mexico. The objectives were to test the effectiveness of a partial pressure suit and a new, multi-stage parachute system at very high altitude. The equipment was envisioned for use by pilots ejecting from high-altitude aircraft and for astronauts in launch abort situations. The following remarks by Joe Kittinger are taken from an article he wrote for the December 1960 issue of
National Geographic magazine.

"Overhead, my onion-shaped balloon spread its 200-foot diameter against a black daytime sky. More than 18 1/2 miles below lay the cloud-hidden New Mexico desert to which I shortly would parachute. Sitting in my gondola, which gently twisted with the balloon's slow turnings, I had begun to sweat lightly, though the temperature read 36 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Sunlight burned in on me under the edge of an aluminized antiglare curtain and through the gondola's open door."

"In our altitude chamber flights at the laboratory, I always knew that if something went wrong, the chamber pressure could be increased immediately, returning me to safety. Doctors stood just a few feet away, watching through a porthole for any sign of malfunction. But here in the eerie silence of space, I knew that my life depended entirely upon my equipment, my own actions, and the presence of God."

"I drop facing the clouds. Then I roll over on my back and find an eerie sight. The white balloon contrasts starkly with a sky as black as night, though it is 7:12 in the morning and I am bathed in sunshine."

"The landing is as hard as any I have ever made in my life.... But I am on the ground, apparently in one piece. I am surrounded by sand, salt grass, and sage, but no Garden of Eden could look more beautiful. The elapsed time since bailout is 13 minutes, 45 seconds."

"When I think of the great possibilities of the balloon, I marvel that it has been so little utilized in man's bid to enter space. I earnestly hope we will not fail to take advantage of the lessons high-altitude balloon flights can teach us before we commit a man to the infinite reaches beyond the world we know."


During the 1950s, chimpanzees were trained at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, New Mexico, in preparation for the Mercury program's first occupied suborbital and orbital flights. This excerpt from Out of this World: New Mexico's Contributions to Space Travel illustrates some of the chimps' almost-human traits:

        The Holloman psychologists even tried to teach the chimps to count. In one experiment, they would flash a number on a screen and reward a chimp if he pressed his lever that number of times. One clever primate named George recognized numbers up to nine and pressed the lever accordingly. A variation of the task was to train chimps to press a lever exactly 50 times. A November 1961 article in the Washington Evening Star reported that "the chimps would pull the lever 'bangity-bangity-bang' about 45 times, then carefully pull Numbers 46, 47, 48, and 49, and finally make pull Number 50 with one hand cupped under the dispenser to receive the reward."

        "Undoubtedly they have the power of reasoning," Jim Cook told George Meeter [author of The Holloman Story]. Cook was in charge of the Holloman vivarium, where the animals lived. "They'll try to open doors and untie shoe laces. A chimp will use a stick like a tool to get an apple out from under something. He'll think out which rope to pull on to get food. He'll also call over his fellows and they'll 'discuss' the problem. They recognize symbolic values, colors, poker chips-they'll accept poker chips as rewards and exchange them later for some delicacy." Cook also said that "the best ones seem to work for the sheer joy of working."

        One of the more interesting experiments involved teaching them to play Tic-Tac-Toe against one another. Two chimps in adjacent glass chambers each had panels that displayed the typical game board. Alternately, the panel was activated for one of the two contestants. He could press a 4-inch square on the grid to indicate his next move. "They intently eyed their squares, knuckled this or that one with a touch, leered at each other and finished each game in nonchalant triumph (with food pellet in hand) or sulking defeat," Meeter reported.

The following is an excerpt from the prologue of Out of this World: New Mexico's Contributions to Space Travel:

        In 1598, three European astronomers-Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and Tycho Brache-were helping each other develop the new astronomical theory that the planets revolve around the sun. They invented and refined instruments to track the planets' movements, developed mathematical models to predict eclipses, and compared the timing and duration of the actual events to their predictions. Their work created a foundation on which, three and a half centuries later, space travel could become a reality.
        At the same time, half a world away, another event took place that would eventually create a stage for many of the developmental dramas of space travel. This event also involved traveling into new frontiers, but of a more rudimentary sort than rocket ships catapulting into the sky. Spain's King Phillip had authorized a Spanish conquistador named Juan de Oñate to colonize New Mexico. To accomplish that mission, Oñate had to forge a trail northward from New Spain (now Mexico) into the foreign territory. He began at the end of El Camino Real, an important trade route that stretched a thousand miles northward from Mexico City.
        The trail Oñate and his fellow pioneers forged from Mexico through the Jornada del Muerto and on to the new village of Santa Fe was one of the most important transportation achievements of North America. Four centuries later and 27 miles to the west, across the still-desolate landscape of Jornada del Muerto, another transportation revolution is taking place. The world's first purpose-built commercial space travel launching site, Spaceport America, is an unobtrusive but spectacularly innovative addition to the southern New Mexico desert. The access road to the spaceport actually crosses El Camino Real.
        Spaceport America tenants, such as UP Aerospace, launch commercial and scientific payloads in unmanned rockets. Anchor tenant Virgin Galactic initially offers suborbital flights to space tourists. It plans to eventually serve as many as ten thousand passengers a year and may ultimately launch tourists into orbit.
        Oñate's expedition charted new territory, but it did not revolutionize the means of transportation. Spaceport America does both. In accomplishing an astonishing extension to humanity's accessibility to outer space, Spaceport America seems to have burst forth from the mind of Zeus. In reality, however, it is simply the next chapter in an eight-decade-long series of programs, experiments, and incredible events tucked away in the unpretentious expanses of the New Mexico desert. From the first launch of animals (fruit flies) into space in 1947 until the first purpose-built commercial spaceport (offering even recreational space travel) in 2011, New Mexico has provided fertile soil for the growth of space travel for fun and profit.

The following is an excerpt from Out of this World: New Mexico's Contributions to Space Travel:

        As a teenager, Robert Goddard read a new novel that not only captured his imagination but held it hostage the rest of his life. The book, The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, vividly described an invasion of Earth by Martians. Many years later, following a successful launch that proved a new technology, he sent a letter to Wells. In it he wrote, "In 1898 I read your War of the Worlds. I was sixteen years old, and the new viewpoints of scientific applications, as well as the compelling realism of the thing, made a deep impression. The spell was complete about a year afterward, and I decided that what might conservatively be called 'high-altitude research' was the most fascinating problem in existence."
        The event that made the spell complete started as an ordinary task. He climbed up into a cherry tree outside his family's house. Pausing from cutting dead branches, he looked out across the fields, and a magical idea came to his mind. "I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars, and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow at my feet," he wrote in a 1927 autobiographical essay. That daydream became the compulsion that defined the rest of his life.
        Eight years after his vision in the cherry tree, Goddard wrote an essay, "On the Possibility of Navigating Interplanetary Space," for his English class at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. In it, he wrote, "The discussion falls naturally into three divisions: the sustaining of life in space, the protection against accident during transit, and the means of propulsion." Addressing the first point, he noted that the problems of food storage, renewal of air in a closed space, and retention of warmth had already been solved. He found the protection issue troublesome, primarily because the British astronomer Sir Norman Lockyer predicted that meteors densely populated outer space-averaging separations of only 250 miles. Yet Goddard dismissed this problem with a paragraph, suggesting a fanciful notion of shielding the spaceship by having it travel within a meteor swarm headed in the desired direction. The swarm would deflect conflicting meteors, and any incidental contact with meteors within the storm would be minor because of the small relative velocities.
        What really captured Goddard's attention was the third issue-the means of propulsion. In a dozen paragraphs, he expounded on the potentials of various energy sources-solar, chemical, and radioactive disintegration. By 1919, he was able to publish theoretical and experimental evidence that "with a rocket of high efficiency, consisting chiefly of propellant material, it should be possible to send small masses even to such great distances as to escape the earth's attraction."

The following is an excerpt from Out of this World: New Mexico's Contributions to Space Travel:

        The German rocketeers who came to the United States under Operation Paperclip were dispersed to several sites around the country to work on various projects. Fifty-five of them, including Wernher von Braun, came to Fort Bliss, which straddles the New Mexico/Texas border near El Paso, to support the V-2 program at White Sands. They lived at the army base and were bused to WSPG when necessary.
        "When I was first informed that I was going to be sent to El Paso I was intensely curious to see it," von Braun wrote in a 1952 magazine article. "I knew it was part of the great American 'Wild West.'" Rather than carousing with cowboys, however, he found himself restricted to the base or closely supervised off base. The Germans' presence in the United States was kept secret for more than a year. The ones assigned to White Sands called themselves "prisoners of peace."
        Von Braun and his compatriots developed friendships with the other engineers who worked at WSPG. On one occasion, they invited some of these Americans to a party at Fort Bliss, complete with delicious German cuisine and home-brewed beer. "The favorite subject for discussion that evening was the fuel used in the V-2, which was Ethyl alcohol, or Ethanol," Thoral Gilland, a Rocketdyne engineer who frequently worked at White Sands, recalled. "Our hosts explained that, aside from a few small fields in Romania, Germany had no petroleum reserves. Alcohol was the most popular fuel for their transportation needs, as well as their war machines. Early in the war, German agronomists developed a huge hybrid potato that was the favorite feedstock in Germany's alcohol distilleries, which kept the wheels rolling in Germany, literally." During the late stages of the war, when food supplies dwindled in Germany, workers at the V-2 development station comforted themselves by consuming alcohol intended to be rocket fuel.

Photo Credits
Robert Goddard towing one of his rockets to the launch site near Roswell about 1931, courtesy of NASA.

WhiteKnightTwo carrying SpaceShipTwo at Spaceport America runway dedication flyover, photo by Loretta Hall.
Unless otherwise credited, all material on this site is © Loretta Hall 2010-2014.
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