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INTO THE GREAT BEYOND: New Mexico has long played a key role in space exploration


The hangar under construction at Spaceport America about 25 miles southeast of Truth or Consequences.

The hangar under construction at Spaceport America about 25 miles southeast of Truth or Consequences.

New Mexico has long played a key role in space exploration, from early testing of rockets to ‘aliens’ in Roswell to medical research for astronauts.

From Robert Goddard’s secretive experiments with early-day rockets in Roswell to the futuristic Spaceport America rising from the desert southeast of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico has played an important role in space travel.

“New Mexico researchers found answers to the most pressing questions about man’s ability to endure space flight — things like cosmic radiation, prolonged weightlessness, forces of acceleration and deceleration, how man would function and survive in the confinement of a space capsule and his ability to react to emergencies under those conditions,” says Albuquerque author Loretta Hall, whose latest book, “Out of This World — New Mexico’s Contributions to Space Travel,” delves into the state’s space history.

“Without those answers, we probably wouldn’t have even tried to send a man into space,” she says.

Some of those questions were answered by Goddard, the father of modern rocketry.

Vision and ridicule

By the time he left the eastern seaboard for the desert scrub of Roswell in 1930, Goddard had been hailed as a visionary by some, and ridiculed by The New York Times for positing that rocket flight held the potential to allow man to explore the moon.

Goddard is credited with designing and building the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket. On March 16, 1926, in a cabbage field on a farm near Auburn, Mass., Goddard successfully launched “Nell,” a contraption in which a small liquid-fueled rocket sat atop the fuel tank. Nell flew 41 feet into the air in 2½ seconds and promptly crashed 184 feet from her launch pad, marking the first successful flight of a liquid-fueled rocket. The humble feat opened the door for space travel.

Looking for more space to launch his ever-larger rockets, a respite from prying reporters and a drier, healthier climate, Goddard moved his operations to Roswell with a $100,000 grant from philanthropist Harry Guggenheim.

During the next decade, Goddard and his colleagues launched dozens of increasingly sophisticated rockets, carefully chronicling each step and laying the groundwork for American space exploration.

Roswell, rockets and aliens

Roswell, it seems, was destined to be linked to space travel.

In June 1947, a rancher reportedly discovered a crashed “flying disc” and small aliens about 30 miles north of the city. Officials from Roswell Army Air Field were said to have recovered most of the craft’s debris and its occupants. Although an Army public information officer issued a news release on July 8, 1947, reporting the find, the military quickly recanted and said the debris was from a high-altitude surveillance balloon.

The incident, and the military’s alleged coverup, have become legend — and a template for UFO conspiracy theories.

White Sands Missile Range, Holloman AFB

In the waning days of World War II — where Nazi Germany’s V-2s had proven the military value of rockets — the U.S. military established White Sands Proving Ground to develop its own rocket programs.

Also in the summer of 1945, 300 railroad freight cars containing thousands of components from captured V-2 rockets were shipped to White Sands.

The rail cars were followed by carefully selected German scientists and missile experts — known as the Paperclip Gang for the paperclips attached to their files when they were chosen — who would help the United States move to the forefront of missile and rocket technology.

During the ensuing decades, White Sands personnel helped develop and test missiles ranging from the needle-like, 24-pound Loki Dart missile to the 43-foot, 10,000-pound Hound Dog cruise missile. Many are preserved and open for viewing at White Sands’ Missile Park.

White Sands has even hosted a space shuttle landing.

As rockets grew more sophisticated, thoughts of sending men into space moved from fantasy to possibility. But first, scientists and researchers had to determine whether humans could even survive the harsh environment of space.

Much of that work fell to the Holloman Aerospace Medical Center at what is now Holloman Air Force Base outside Alamogordo.

Working first with high-altitude balloons, Holloman scientists began sending fruit flies, mice and other small animals aloft to determine how they were affected by altitude, isolation, nearweightlessness and other factors. Soon, small animals and primates were being launched.

On Jan. 31, 1961, a Holloman-trained chimpanzee named Ham successfully achieved suborbital flight aboard a Mercury-Redstone rocket — developed just down the road at White Sands — marking a major success in the United States’ fledgling space program. Ham, who lived to age 26, is buried at the International Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo.

More than a decade after Ham’s flight, White Sands earned an interesting footnote in space history.

After an eight-day mission, space shuttle Columbia landed at 9:04 a.m. on March 30, 1982, at the missile range’s Northrup Strip after rainy conditions at Edwards Air Force Base in California made landing there risky. The shuttle was then flown back to Florida, piggy-backed on one of the shuttle fleet’s two specially modified Boeing 747s.

It’s the only time the backup strip has been used for a space shuttle landing.

Today, White Sands Missile Range covers almost 3,200 square miles and is the largest military installation in the United States.

One of the projects it now hosts is developing a system for rescuing crews from the Orion, the space launch vehicle replacing the space shuttles. Should an Orion experience problems during a launch or during the craft’s climb into orbit, the system is designed to jettison the crew module from the launch vehicle using a solid rocket-powered launch abort engine.

Lovelace Clinic

New Mexico also played a role in developing early medical and psychological criteria for astronauts.

Because of his background in aviation and aerospace medicine, Dr. William Randolph “Randy” Lovelace II was asked by NASA to develop medical guidelines for selecting astronauts.

After serving as a colonel with the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, the Harvard-educated Lovelace returned to his native New Mexico and founded Lovelace Clinic. After developing a regimen of testing for potential astronauts — and subjecting more than 30 of them to a week of demanding physical and psychological tests — Lovelace helped select the first seven American astronauts, deemed the Mercury Seven for the project to put a man in orbit around the Earth.

Lovelace’s guidelines later were used to help select astronauts for the Gemini and Apollo programs.

Lovelace died in a plane crash in Colorado in 1965. A crater on the moon is named after him.

Spaceport America

Hoping to cash in on the interest in commercial space travel, New Mexico is building a $209 million spaceport about 25 miles southeast of Truth or Consequences.

Spaceport America will be home to Virgin Galactic, entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson’s commercial space tourism business. Branson has signed a 20-year lease with the state and plans to give space tourists a two-hour ride to the edge of space — at $200,000 a ticket.

Virgin Galactic officials say about 400 people have purchased, or made down payments, for the rides, projected to begin as early as 2013.

Funded by state tax dollars, Spaceport America’s futuristic $33 million, 110,152-squarefoot terminal/hangar is nearing completion, and work is under way on an adjacent, 14,000-squarefoot, $2.9 million Spaceport Operations Center.

The goal of the spaceport is to bring jobs, tourism and educational opportunities to the state.

New Mexico astronauts

New Mexico has contributed more than research to America’s space program, including four intrepid astronauts.


Mitchell grew up on his father’s cattle ranch near Artesia.

After graduating from Artesia High School, he became a Navy pilot and was selected for astronaut training in April 1966.

Mitchell blasted into space aboard Apollo 14 on Jan. 31, 1972.

Apollo 14, NASA’s third lunar landing mission, was commanded by Alan Shepard. Mitchell became the sixth person to walk on the moon. He and Shepard performed a number of surface experiments — including Shepard’s smacking of golf balls.


Schmitt, who was born in Santa Rita and grew up in Silver City, was the lunar module pilot on Apollo 17, the last manned mission to the moon Dec. 7-19, 1972. Schmitt and mission commander Eugene Cernan were the last two men to walk on the moon.

Schmitt collected samples of moon rocks and is credited with taking a breathtaking photo of the Earth from the moon, a widely distributed image known as “the blue marble.”


Mullane was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, but grew up in Albuquerque, graduating from St. Pius X High School in 1963.

His interest in rockets dates to his teenage days when he would build and launch model rockets in the Sandia foothills.

After serving with the Air Force in Vietnam, Mulland was selected by NASA in 1978. He flew aboard three missions: the maiden flight of the space shuttle Discovery, which left Kennedy Space Center on Aug. 30, 1984; aboard Atlantis that took off on Dec. 2, 1988, and again on Atlantis in February 1990.


Gutierrez was born in Albuquerque and graduated from Valley High School in 1969.

After graduating from the Air Force Academy, he flew the F-15 Eagle for the 7th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Holloman Air Force Base and later helped test and develop the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

Gutierrez piloted the shuttle Columbia for STS-40, a June 1991 mission that focused on how humans, animals and cells respond to microgravity. Three years later, he commanded STS-59 aboard the shuttle Endeavour, an 11-day mission.


The space shuttle Columbia lands at White Sands Missile Range on March 30, 1982, the only time the shuttle landed in New Mexico. (Richard Pipes / Journal)

The space shuttle Columbia lands at White Sands Missile Range on March 30, 1982, the only time the shuttle landed in New Mexico. (Richard Pipes / Journal)