Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES – Nearly two decades in the making, the spaceship Unity and its crew on Sunday morning crested our planet’s atmosphere, pierced the realm of outer space and drifted back to Earth, leaving an audience of New Mexicans spellbound and breathless.
“This is the most exciting thing ever. I’m so nervous and excited,” said Karen Klipfel, a southern New Mexico resident who attended the Virgin Galactic watch party at the Truth or Consequences Civic Center the morning of the launch.
Klipfel had just cheered as she watched on the big screen the successful high-altitude launch into space, and was visibly nervous as she watched the Unity spacecraft in its confident glide back to the Spaceport America airstrip.
“A lot of bad things happen with the landing. So I’m really nervous. It will be so historic if it lands,” she said with her hands on her face, partially shielding her eyes from the screen.
At 1,000 feet.
“Oh my God.”
At 300 feet.
“Oh my God.”
At touchdown, Klipfel and her two friends – and more than 100 other people in the Civic Center – erupted in shouts and cheers.
“Oh yeah! It’s amazing. I was in first grade when I saw the moon landing,” Klipfel said, with happiness and relief. “This is amazing. Thank God. That’s way prettier than the space shuttle – perfect landing.”
Lynn Uphus and Mary Hulster, both good friends of Klipfel, shared the moment.
“We’re the place to be now,” said Uphus of southern New Mexico. “People who have means are going to want to go into space. They’ve tackled every other opportunity on earth, so here is a new one for them. So let the revenue begin.”
The trio was among the estimated 200 people who attended official Spaceport America watch parties in southern New Mexico. Each watch party – two in Las Cruces and one in Truth or Consequences – featured the live broadcast of the launching of the VSS Unity, the first commercial passenger spaceship built by a private company, Virgin Galactic.
“I’m super proud to live in New Mexico,” said Will Garde, a photographer who attended the watch party with about 60 others at the Rio Grande Theatre in Las Cruces. “I love space, the cosmos, and I love taking pictures of space. So I’m super proud to live here.”
John Muñoz of Las Cruces said he felt like he was witnessing the start of a new era. He saw the space flight from the Las Cruces Civic Center watch party, which had about two dozen people in attendance.
“We’ve been waiting. And that extraordinary day finally came,” he said. “This is a significant time in our history. It’s like when our great-grandparents saw a locomotive, when our grandparents saw an airplane take off.”
The Unity passenger spaceship was carried to the brim of Earth’s atmosphere by WhiteKnightTwo, also known as mothership Eve. Unity was jettisoned off the mothership for its solo rocket-propelled flight into suborbital space – the area barely within the tenuous pull of Earth’s gravity.
The commercial spaceship completed its brush along the underside of outer space, and returned to Spaceport America – with a double sonic boom – a little before 10 a.m.
“The flight today was an incredible success for Virgin Galactic and Spaceport America,” Alice Carruth, spokeswoman for Spaceport America, said. “This mission will put New Mexico on the map as the leader in commercial aerospace.”
This mission, named “Unity 22,” was the 22nd flight test of the rocket-powered plane, but the first to carry a six-person crew including the company’s founder, Sir Richard Branson, who was on board to test the “private astronaut experience,” according to information from Virgin Galactic.
The flight has been greatly anticipated – and spectators on Sunday didn’t even wait until dawn to start showing up.
Starting at 3:30 a.m. Sunday, vehicles began pulling into the access road leading to Spaceport America. Though spaceport officials encouraged people to watch the launch from watch parties, by 7 a.m. there were at least 100 vehicles and well more than 100 people gathered on the public property around the spaceport.
John Camacho and Delia Camacho, a nephew and aunt duo, said they left El Paso at 5 a.m. and drove to the Spaceport America site to watch the launch live.
“We tried to go to the spaceport, but they turned us around,” said John Camacho. “But it was better to see it live than on TV.”
Delia Camacho said that seeing the Virgin Galactic craft rise into the sky in a journey to space gave her “a sense of hope.”
“It’s like a new frontier,” she said.
Southern New Mexico leaders say the successful flight was a critical step to securing the state’s role in the burgeoning space travel industry, and should translate into stronger economic development for the region and state.
Initial estimates are that Sunday’s Virgin Galactic flight at Spaceport America brought about $400,000 to the state of New Mexico, said Paul Dahlgren, director of marketing and communications for Visit Las Cruces. That figure is based on hotel occupancy rates for the week leading up to the launch, he said.