TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, NM, August 2, 2013—When the new Spaceport America Visitor Center and Spaceport Tour debuts next summer it will put eyes on a whole new era of possibilities.
For now, however, the State of New Mexico, which has put in more than $209 million into the planning and development of what will be a key tourist attraction, if not seminal commercial platform for aviation and rocket technology, is offering a first look into just what’s in store for the future of travel. Authorities are putting their money on the fact that Spaceport America will bring a jackpot in tourism to southern New Mexico.
To that end, what is currently a three-hour bus tour from Truth or Consequences offered by Follow the Sun Tours will be come a six-hour tour of real and imagined space launches when Spaceport America opens to the public in 2014. Former Disney imagineers, rocket engineers and interior designers are busy at work creating the Spaceport Visitors Center and tour, which promises to be the tour of the future meeting travel of the future.
Arrival: Spaceport America Visitor Center
Spaceport’s location is a two-hour drive from Albuquerque or an hour’s drive from Las Cruces. The tour experience starts in the Visitors Center where you can purchase tickets if you have not already done so online, get “clearance” and obtain a boarding pass. Because the tour is showcasing an authentic working spaceport, the center must confirm names, hometowns, and email addresses. It’s advised to arrive an hour ahead of scheduled departure. And naturally there is an app for all this. The app offers a preview of the exploration to come plus alerts on departure times once you log in your reservation number.
The center has its own attractions as well: exhibits on orbital and sub-orbital space travel, New Mexico’s rich history, looks at local advancement of space flight, plus a rocket-centered gift shop and café.
Departure: Spaceport Central
Shuttles then head to Spaceport Central where the Quarterdeck has all the restrooms, gifts and merchandise (exclusive Spaceport America apparel, keepsakes, and mission gear) and snack for the long trip to come. Also find there the Event Horizon Theater and Show Countdown Screen offering a 3D orientation to Spaceport America.
As with most attractions in the world, there is a wait. So the imagineers have made it entertaining with a wander through Cosmos Hall. There find priceless artifacts of human evolution and invention on display: arrowheads and flint stones, musket balls and broaches, railroad spikes and canteens, crumpled fuselages and blast shards.
Sophisticated video games also have there moment here. Check out the Launch Window that puts a different part of a commercial space launch into the player’s hands. Players can design the spaceship/craft a mission, select the ground/order flight crew to carry out the mission, and make sure the launch vehicle is properly configured and compete against each other for that race into space.
Soon the show countdown screen opens and it’s time to pick up a pair of 3D glasses and enter the theater. The 3D feature shown is called “Aspira,” about the inspiring can-do spirit of the many pioneers at Spaceport America. The theater also supports live presentations as Spaceport America picks up briefing feeds from JPL, NASA, and other space agencies about their launch activity, satellites, and rovers in English and Spanish through added listening devices.
After Aspira, it’s time to move onto MissionCore, where you can actually test your tolerance for playing, living, and working in space. You can see how many G’s you can handle while controlling a flight wheel or what rolling inside a 6-axis gyro cage in free fall. The younger astronauts to be can run wild in KidSpaceport.
Because Spaceport America is actually a working spaceport, you’ll see scientists and technicians in different corridors assembling, preparing, and testing payloads prior to their launches into space. At Payload Processing, watch scientists work on the next instrument packages and experimental payloads to go up into space. And there is even a payload specialist on hand to interpret what guests are seeing through the large observation wall.
Then it’s time for launch. Visitors take the local Launch Wagon to a nearby site and prepare to send rockets up in the air and payloads out into space. These are often high altitude helium balloons that get released daily in the course of certain experiments and tests. Guests get to send up smaller rockets that share some of the same propulsion and ballistic properties as those officially in progress. But there’s only one official high altitude balloon release a day and so you should not miss that one.
Up the Astronaut Walk
Next, head up the Astronaut Walk to the hangar (the same entrance that Virgin Galactic’s astronauts take when first arriving at the building). There, the Virgin Galactic’s well-heeled astronauts-for-a-day (who each pay some $250,000 for the experience) are in preparation for their launch – a training that takes two days. Sometimes, the Flightline Tour is held up for a few minutes while Virgin Galactic welcomes a VIP passenger, usually a celebrity, or politician or simply someone who has a lot of money and wants to use it for a day in space.
Through the Gateway to Space
The Gateway to Space terminal hangar facility also houses a 4,000-square-foot area dedicated to telling the story of Virgin Galactic. Combined with the vehicle tour around the Spaceport property, the Flightline tour lasts an hour.
Launch, then Lunch
Soon you will be heading back to Spaceport Central where you can find lunch, rather than another launch, in the galaxy themed-restaurant, or buy futuristic gifts in the sizable shop, or watch continuous 2D showings in the Horizon Theater of “Spaceport Today,” which showcasing imagery from recent launches and space activity.
However, should you want to catch Spaceport America now, you will do it through Follow the Sun Tours, which runs regular bus tours of the space platform site from Truth or Consequences. Pick up and drop off for this tour happens at the Holiday Inn Express Hotel, where guests can get a complimentary hot breakfast or afternoon snack with the purchase of a tour. Bonus: Holiday Inn Express offers a 10 percent discount on room rates with purchase of a Spaceport America Preview Tour ticket. Call (575) 894-3900.
Follow the Sun ticket prices are $59 for adults, $49 for teens ages 13-17; and $29 for children 12 and under. There is a minimum requirement of three guests per tour. For reservations, call 575-740-6894 or book online at spaceplacenm.com
Lark Gould is an author of eight books on travel and a journalist who has been covering the travel industry for more than two decades.
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