On the morning of July 11, 2021, the next exciting chapter of space history began as Virgin Galactic made history after completing the Unity 22 test flight, a pivotal step towards the company kicking off commercial space flights. The flight sent Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson and three other mission specialists more than 50 miles above the earth before and before gliding back safely to Spaceport America, the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport that sits just 50 miles north of Las Cruces, NM.
Southern New Mexico has a long history with aerospace research, engineering, testing, and space exploration. The aerospace industry has always had a strong foothold throughout our state, and suborbital flights and space tourism will ensure that it always does. Over 60 aerospace companies currently have a presence in New Mexico, several which are NewSpace concepts. Las Cruces offers an excellent home-base for visitors to tour space museums, Spaceport America, and nearby space-related attractions.
Lying a few miles west of the Organ Mountains is a sign that welcomes visitors to White Sands Missile Range, the birthplace of America’s missile and space program. It’s an accolade that very few people know about but space, and the continued exploration of the Universe, has long been a strong influence on industry in the region and in particular, in Las Cruces. In fact, the very first image of Earth from space was taken on October 24th, 1946 by a rocket launched from White Sands Missile Range (WSMR). The German V2 Rocket, captured by America in WWII, reached an impressive 105 kms above the ground.
In the same year as the V2 rocket launch, renowned astronomer Clyde Tombaugh moved to Las Cruces to work on tracking telescopes used to photograph rockets and missiles during test flights. Tombaugh is widely known for his discovery of Pluto in 1930, but he also discovered other celestial bodies and developed instruments such as the IGOR (Intercept Ground Optical Recorder), which remained in use at WSMR for the next 30 years.
Tombaugh moved to the Physical Science Laboratory at New Mexico State University (NMSU) in 1955 to study ‘Near Earth Satellite Search’ which assured NASA that there were no natural satellites or debris that could interfere with sending rockets, and eventually humans, into space. Tombaugh taught at NMSU until his retirement in 1973 and continued to study the Universe from his backyard observatory in Mesilla until his death in 1997. His ashes were later sent to space on-board the New Horizons probe in 2006, destined for Pluto.
In 1963, NASA established the White Sands Test Facility (WSTF) in the western foothills of the Organ Mountains. The primary mission of the facility was the support NASA’s Space Station program and previously the Shuttle Program. Today WSTF primarily participates in propulsion systems testing and often their testing can be heard across Las Cruces in the Mesilla Valley.
50 miles southwest of Las Cruces lies a maar volcanic crater with ties to NASA’s Apollo Space Program. A maar crater is one that is broad and shallow, typically filled by a lake, formed by an eruption with little lava. Kilbourne Hole and its neighbor Hunt’s Hole were used by NASA to train Apollo Astronauts. NASA used the volcanic fields during exercises on how to observe pertinent geological features and collect samples that Astronauts later used during missions.
Apollo Astronauts that trained at Kilbourne Hole ahead of their missions:
- Apollo 12 Astronauts Charles “Pete” Conrad and Alan L. Bean and support crewman Edward Gibson trained at Kilbourne Hole in April 1969, ahead of their successful lunar landing in November of 1969
- Apollo 12 Richard Gordon
- Apollo 14 Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell
- Apollo 15 David Scott and James Irwin
- Apollo 16 John Young and Charlie Duke
- Apollo 17 Eugene Cernan and New Mexico’s Harrison “Jack” Schmitt
While Las Cruces and the surrounding region holds a prominent place in America’s space history, it also continues to gain international attention with the prospects of future space exploration. In 2006, construction began on the ‘World’s first commercial Spaceport’ north of Las Cruces.
What is Spaceport America? Spaceport America is the world’s first commercial space port designed and constructed for commercial space flight.
Where is Spaceport America? Spaceport America is located 45 miles north of Las Cruces at an elevation of 4,600 above sea level. It is located on 18,000 acres of land in the Jornada del Muerto desert basin adjacent to the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range under 6,000 square miles of protected airspace.
Space Cup Spaceport America hosts hundreds of international students every June for the Spaceport America Cup.
Spaceport America has FAA-licensed horizontal and vertical launch areas that attract various innovating entrepreneurial tenants including some of the most well-respected companies in the commercial space industry: SpaceX, UP Aerospace, EXOS Aerospace, EnergeticX, Pipeline2Space, and their anchor tenant Virgin Galactic.
Virgin Galactic is a commercial spaceflight company within the Virgin Group that aims to provide suborbital spaceflights to space tourists departing from Spaceport America. Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane, SpaceShipTwo, successfully completed a crewed spaceflight in December 2018 and carried its first passenger in February 2019. Plans to depart from New Mexico are pending final testing in Mojave, California.
Let the Future Begin
On May 10, 2019 Sir Richard Branson announced that Virgin Galactic Operations would be moving its California operations to Spaceport America near Las Cruces over the coming summer, in preparation for initiating the world’s first commercial space flights. 100 staff and their families will be moving to Las Cruces.
“New Mexico delivered on its promise to build a world-first and world-class spaceport,” said Branson. “Today, I could not be more excited to announce that in return, we are now ready to bring New Mexico a world-first, world-class spaceline. Virgin Galactic is coming home to New Mexico, where together we will open space to change the world for good.”
Virgin Galactic will reposition its space system consisting of carrier aircraft VMS Eve and spaceship VSS Unity from Mojave California to Spaceport America over the summer months once cabin interior and other work has been completed by Virgin Galactic’s sister manufacturing organization, The Spaceship Company. It will complete its final test flights from New Mexico before commencing a full commercial service for passengers and research payload. TSC will remain based in Mojave where it will continue building Virgin Galactic’s planned fleet of SpaceShipTwo and (carrier aircraft) WhiteKnightTwo vehicles.
The World is Watching
The company’s founder Sir Richard Branson has recently made public remarks on his 2019 planned space flight that will make him among the world’s few astronauts. Branson’s flight from Spaceport America will mark the beginning of an era for mankind: the time for commercial space tourism.
The City of Las Cruces plans to celebrate Sir Richard Branson’s first flight with a live stream of the flight and events downtown at the Plaza de Las Cruces.
Future Astronaut Program
Currently there are fewer than 600 humans who have traveled to space in history, Virgin Galactic plans to change that. Over 600 people have purchased tickets to experience spaceflight and become astronauts. Future Astronauts will train and prepare for their voyage over three days at Spaceport America, and then in the early morning they will join the list of humans who have seen the curvature of Earth from space.
At $250,000 a ticket, a ride to space is hard to book for the average tourist, but luckily for all those visiting Las Cruces, Spaceport Tours are available for purchase in advance departing from our city.
Final Frontier Tours now depart from Visit Las Cruces, the visitor center in Las Cruces, New Mexico to Spaceport America. The tour starts at 336 S Main Street at takes you to tour the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport, experience the G-Shock simulator, and see the runway to space–all in the beautiful high desert of southern New Mexico. Tours must be booked in advance.
Museum of Nature & Science | The Light & Space interactive area of the museum includes a four-foot digital video globe, a telescope built by Las Cruces’ own Clyde Tombaugh, an interactive table where visitors can experiment with refracting light, rotating images of the universe from NASA’s Space Science Institute, a mechanical model of the solar system, and an interactive exhibit on the color of stars.
The New Mexico Museum of Space History, a Smithsonian Affiliate museum, has been a New Mexico institution since 1976. Located in Alamogordo, New Mexico, the museum is just a short day trip from Las Cruces. It offers a variety of artifacts and displays related to aerospace, space flight and the space age, with a focus on New Mexico’s role in the U.S. manned space program. Highlights of your visit to the museum will include exhibits about the U.S. and international space programs, HAM the Astrochimp, the International Space Hall of Fame, large format films and planetarium shows screened daily in the New Horizons Theater, and the John P. Stapp Air and Space Park featuring the Little Joe II rocket – the largest rocket ever launched from New Mexico to date.
The museum is also the designated repository for Spaceport America and the National Space Society.
Fun fact: Ham the first chimpanzee to go to space is buried at the museum grounds.
The Las Cruces Space Festival is an annual celebration of space-related activity and interest in southern New Mexico and beyond. The mission: Making Space for Everyone
Many partner organizations across the community are involved–ranging from the public schools, local universities and colleges, space industry, the City of Las Cruces, arts and cultural groups, and many others–to provide an event for people of all ages and interests.
The festival aims to raise awareness and celebrate space-related activity and achievements in the region–past, present and future–by providing an event where people can have fun, learn about new possibilities, and get inspired and excited by the various elements of the week-long festival.
The festival is free to participate in, and open to all, with the cost of activities, presentations, displays and exhibits all covered by generous local sponsorships. The Las Cruces Space Festival celebrates ‘space’ – it is an annual event to recognize space-related activity and interest in southern New Mexico and beyond.
- Raise Awareness in our Community and beyond of space-related activity in the region – past, present and future
- Educate and Inspire our Youth (all ages)
- Celebrate the Anniversary of Human Spaceflight (April 12th – “Yuri’s Night”)
- Provide Entertainment and Fun for Participants
- Provide / Enable Economic Impact in Doña Ana & Sierra counties
- Support development and needs of a sustainable Spaceport
Las Cruces has a rich history with space and a bright future with commercial space flight. Plan your trip to the City of Crosses today and explore all the vibrant attractions that make this place unique. Las Cruces is located conveniently off of I-10 and I-25, just a short 45-minute drive from El Paso, TX and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.