After a day of strangeness yesterday, I expected a return to normality. My plan was to drive out 20 miles in the desert to Spaceport American, a quarter billion dollar spaceport that isn’t yet operating. The press and PR department at Spaceport had been initially very helpful but then days before the trip retracted permission to shoot there.
I decided to give it one last go. I called the press person and explained I was in town only for a few hours. She told me I’d have to print and fill out a permit as they normally only review requests with at least 24 hours notice. I reminded her that I’d been in communication with them for over 3 weeks and she said she’d review what she could do upon the return of the paperwork and ID for security checks…
I then made a mad dash around town to find a motel that would print the email I’d received so I could sign it, photograph it and return to Spaceport. The aptly named Rocket Inn did this without any charge and even offered me coffee while I waited.
After a stunning 50 minute drive through a canyon, I arrived at the Spaceport bang on time and met security who took my ID. He explained how busy they were currently, although I could see no one else around. He called the Head Of Security who was going to escort me.
After 5 minutes a van arrived and a chap jumped out. I introduced myself and he said I should call him ‘Smiffy’. He asked me to follow him down to the gates where I was authorised to take photos. I was still about 100 metres away from the terminal building. Smiffy (or ‘Smutty’ as I started to call him accidentally on purpose) said they were too busy to accommodate guests on Tuesdays. This was disappointing as I’d contacted them 3 weeks ago and asked them to choose a day of the week which works best for them. He said he didn’t have permission to show me the administration building, hangars or the fire department which had earlier been promised, my visit felt a little pointless.
I looked at Google Maps on my phone and asked if there were any vantage points from around the site. He said not, and also warned me that local ranchers were aggressive.
Smiffy had a gun on his belt, but told me he’d never had to use it as no-one really comes. He told that he signed an NDA when he started work here 6 years ago couldn’t discuss what goes on inside; I suggested the name ‘Spaceport’ kinda gives it away; after a few seconds pause he agreed but failed to see the humour.
It was farcical. Everyone I met said they were so busy but it was hardly a hive of activity. One security man proudly told me that it was currently running at 3% capacity so when it takes off (he didn’t get his own pun) it will be even busier. I wanted to explain that as I was the only guest today and it was running at 3% then it should be able to cope with at least 33 space travellers before expansion is needed, but I bit my lip!
It was a £250million folly in the desert plagued by issues that most people I spoke with blamed on poor management. The company sub-contracted to run tours to the site went bankrupt earlier this year and as a result tourists are no longer welcomed. Even SpaceX have pulled out due to logistical challenges with the management. They wanted to widen a road through the canyon to bring in a 100ft rocket, but were declined so they voted with their feet and moved back to Cape Canaveral.
I left disappointed, and decided to follow the roads that Smiffy had advised against…
On the opposite side there were some great views of the terminal building and runway and I climbed on top of the car for the best angle. On my way back down a dirt road a car coming the opposite way stopped and waved me to stop. Was this an aggressive rancher that Smiffy had wanted me about?
I explained what I was doing, he said he was a rancher and introduced himself as Jay Snider. He got out and chatted to me for nearly an hour. He was frustrated with the Spaceport and said he’d lived here most of his life. When the Spaceport was built they cut off his water and electric as the existing pipes and cables ran under the new runway. He now had to survive off-grid driving miles for fresh water from a well and surviving with solar panels and generators. No wonder Spaceport security had warned me the locals were aggressive! He explained that although the vision is great, the reality is far from it; so far a few schools have let off amateur rockets and Boeing has set balloons off. There is a 7 mile long runway which hasn’t had a single use yet, he said. It all seemed a bit of a joke.
I got a similar story in Truth Or Consequences, the nearest (40 miles away) town. The proprietor of my hotel, Hans, was also the chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce. He said that the management are going to be the death of it and Spaceport gives them nothing but hassle. He too echoed my thoughts that all the employees say they are too busy, but nobody can understand what with. Truth Or Consequences, or ‘TandC’ as the locals call it, had been instrumental in supporting the Spaceport since the early plans. However, now it was built, the Spaceport are lobbying to pave a dirt road to Las Cruces in the south, thus avoiding TandC. That has brought them understandable resentment from the nearest town. Hans also explained that the Spaceport has cost every resident of New Mexico around $12 in taxes to build plus an extra 3-4% every single year just to cover the huge deficit of running costs.
Virgin are the anchor tenant (well, only tenant) and pay $1,000,000 a year lease. However, the Spaceport pays out over $26,000,000 a year just to stay open. Management recently signed a 5 year $2,900,000 deal on a private fire brigade who monitor the site 247 despite no flights or visitors. They too were ‘too busy’ to let me see the fire station.
It really was a folly in the desert and I left wondering if the world’s first commercial Spaceport would actually be a success in decades to come or whether mis-management would be the death of it.
ELEPHANT BUTTE, NEW MEXICO
On my way back from the ‘Folly In The Desert’ I was admiring the stunning canyon when I noticed a sign pointing towards a marina. I couldn’t imagine any lake up here in the mountains, so bemused I turned right down a trail to follow the sign.
I’d not driven 50 metres and the road swung round a sharp bend and opened out to show the most picturesque mountain lake. At one end there was a huge dam.
I met a chap who introduced himself as Jules who was sat at the back of his pickup in a deckchair drinking root beer. Clearly we had something in common! He was watching birds but was interested in my lens and camera so we got talking, he was a Nikon fan! He explained that this was once Elephant Butte village which was flooded to create a hydro electric plant. The water was 100 metres lower than is should be currently and he pointed out a building just visible on the water’s edge and said it was the old hospital.
I would have loved to stay longer and explore but I wanted to make it to the Very Large Array before sunset so we shook hands and I went on my way.
TRINITY ATOMIC TEST SITE
Heading 2 hours North I was interested to find a memorial obelisk to the world’s first atomic bomb test. This was detonated 3 weeks before an identical bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. 100 square miles were obliterated with the force of the bomb, but these days the background radiation, although still 10x normal, is equivalent to a trans-atlantic flight.
I knew only roughly where to find the obelisk and I suspected it might be within the huge White Sands Missile Range itself. I contacted their PR department and politely requested permission to go inside their nuclear facility but the only invite visitors in twice a year to ‘ground zero’ and apparently vegetation has now grown back so there’s really not much to see.
I followed GPS co-ordinates I’d found on the net which led me to a junction with a paved road heading south that wasn’t marked on Google. I followed it for about 15 miles and just as I was about to give up and turn around I arrived at some highly secured gates for the military base.
I could have easily walked under the barriers but there were cameras everywhere so I opted to press the intercom button instead. I’m not sure what the best way for a tourist to ask permission into an atomic test site actually is but after 3 long button presses and waving like a mad Englishman at the cameras, there wasn’t any reply.
I’d come to a very literal ‘end of the road’ in my search for the atomic ground zero and after taking a few photos, turned the car round and headed back.
VERY LARGE ARRAY
After a rather disappointing day, I headed 2 hours west to the Very Large Array. My initial contact with their PR department hadn’t been positive; they’d quoted me $10,000 per day plus $300 per employee assigned to me out of hours. After some research I realised that out of hours entry to the visitors centre is pointless, and as the telescopes are placed up to 38 miles apart depending on the current configuration, and there are points that they are visible out of hours from public highways.
The sun was just setting as I arrived, beautiful deep oranges and even rarer reds. It was stunning.
I setup a camera and some subtle lighting to shoot some time-lapse, the sun set quickly and it was absolutely pitch black within a short time. I lay on the roof of my 4×4 with Pink Floyd playing loud. The stars and milky way were the most vibrant I have ever seen and looking up at them made me feel dizzy. I felt stoned and was in very happy place; I had soda, snacks, loud music and I was shooting timelapse of the world’s largest radio telescope in the middle of the New Mexico desert.
A few cars passed me in the 3 hours I was there and the headlights bleached out the dish. I must find an even more remote location tomorrow.
DATIL, NEW MEXICO
At around 20h30 I packed up all my equipment and drove 20 miles to Datil, the nearest ‘town’. The only thing in Datil is a gas station and general store, this was my home for the next 2 nights. The bar was redneck and I was surprised to find about half a dozen people drinking. Apparently this is hunting season and peak time for Datil. I had some fries and a couple of beers and retired to my bed.