Travel

Everything You Need to Know About Spaceport America: The Future Home of Space Tourism

Beam us up, Scotty!

Photo courtesy of Spaceport America
Photo courtesy of Spaceport America
Photo courtesy of Spaceport America

Staring down the barrel of pandemic year three might have you wishing you could get far, far away. Off-planet, even. “Beam me up, Scotty” or “James Webb Telescope stowaway” far. And in the vast desert of central New Mexico, there’s a place where you can do just that-or at least, theoretically.

Located just outside the town of Truth or Consequences, Spaceport America opened in 2011 as the world’s first commercial spaceport. (Yes, that’s an airport, but for flights to space.) Their anchor tenant, space tourism company Virgin Galactic, made history with the launch of the VSS Unity 22 crewed test flight back in July 2021, capturing the world’s attention and seriously pissing off Jeff Bezos. With two pilots and four crew members aboard-including billionaire founder Sir Richard Branson, deemed Astronaut 001 for the mission-SpaceShipTwo flew about five miles beyond the boundaries of Earth before safely touching back down again.

Curtis Rosemond, who leads guided tours of the spaceport, witnessed the launch himself. “The crowd was quiet just before the aircraft left the ground, and then you could hear this loud roar of applause,” he said. “[When] VSS Unity successfully touched ground…you could hear the crowd cheering from a mile away. You could see some people with tears of joy running down their faces. It was a day that I will always remember.””So many have said Unity 22 was reminiscent of watching the first historic moon landing,” said Aleanna Crane, Virgin Galactic’s VP, Communications. “Which is incredible to think about, as it was that very moment that first inspired Richard Branson to pursue space travel.”

It was Branson himself who, just after the flight, perhaps best summed up the moment’s significance: “Welcome to the dawn of a new space age.”

With cosmic tourism growing more tangible by the day, here’s everything you need to know about Spaceport America, why New Mexico is the future home of space travel, and how long it’ll be before you’re vacationing alongside the astronauts.

Photo courtesy of Spaceport America
Photo courtesy of Spaceport America
Photo courtesy of Spaceport America

Why is Spaceport America based in Truth or Consequences?

At about 45 minutes from downtown T or C, Spaceport America is, at best, in the middle of nowhere. At worst, it’s in the cactus-and-rattlesnake-filled part of the 1,590-mile El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro that Spanish conquistadors once called the Jornada del Muerto, or “Dead Man’s Journey.”

It may seem an odd choice to plant a spaceport in rural New Mexico: one of the least populous states in the Union, many people have never been, and some others think you need a passport to visit (nope, it’s part of the US!). But the region’s long history of scientific breakthroughs make it a solid candidate as the future home of space travel.

During the 40s, the government studied early rocketry in nearby White Sands; here, they launched the rocket that captured the first-ever photo of Earth taken from space and detonated the first atomic bomb at Trinity Test Site. White Sands conducts secret tests to this day, making it a highly protected military base and a no-fly zone-meaning Spaceport America doesn’t need any air traffic control, since there are no other aircraft for miles around (assuming New Mexico’s famous UFOs don’t decide to make an appearance).On top of that, the spaceport sits at an elevation of 4,595 feet, meaning spaceships don’t need to fly as far to escape the atmosphere. (The local joke is that “the first mile’s for free.”) Plus, there’s the weather: According to the local chamber of commerce, the area enjoys “sunshine for an average of 350 days per year, low humidity, and no air pollution,” all of which is important for launches: clouds, fog, smog, rain, and storms create dangerous conditions that can thwart even the best-laid plans.

“The wide expanse of open country, the clear airspace, the excellent weather,” Branson said at the dedication ceremony for the runway. “Where else would you build Spaceport America?” And besides, if tourists will go out of their way to see the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, it’s surely safe to assume they’ll drive an hour into the desert to go to suborbital space.

Photo courtesy of Spaceport America
Photo courtesy of Spaceport America
Photo courtesy of Spaceport America

What can you do at Spaceport America?

Beyond Virgin Galactic’s flights, the spaceport hosts engine testing, drone testing, and rocket launches by communications and defense companies. One company even sends the deceased into space: You can choose to memorialize your late loved ones by launching their ashes out and back or by straight-up sending them into space forever. In fact, the first successful launch at Spaceport America primarily carried cremated human remains, including those of astronaut Gordon Cooper and Star Trek actor James Doohan, who played Scotty.

Really. Scotty was literally beamed up from New Mexico.

Virgin designed the interior of the main terminal and hangar-the “Gateway to Space”-which houses pre-flight facilities for astronauts, a command center, and a restaurant for families of the astronauts to relax in while their loved ones zip out into the mesosphere and back. There’s also a small museum that chronicles the history and eco-friendly design of the spaceport, and a zero-gravity simulator that’ll give you the nauseatingly real feel of a space launch.

Currently, the Spaceport is technically closed to the public, but you can take a tour with Curtis Rosemond’s company Final Frontier, the only group licensed to take visitors inside. A tour includes an insider peek at the command center, the terminal building, and the huge fire and rescue center, where you get to meet the firefighters and paramedics and climb around in state-of-the-art fire trucks, which is frankly excellent.

Photo courtesy of Spaceport America
Photo courtesy of Spaceport America
Photo courtesy of Spaceport America

When can I go to space?

With one successful launch on the books, space tourism for the masses feels closer at hand than ever before. Though it’s nowhere near cheap right now-tickets cost a mere $450,000/seat, the kind of spare change we’re sure you could find stuck between your couch cushions right now-Virgin Galactic claims it wants to make space travel accessible to everyday travelers as soon as possible.

Aleanna Crane says the company is on course to begin commercial flights at the end of 2022 and plans to add a second spaceship, VSS Imagine, to its fleet in early 2023. “We expect to launch commercial service in Q4 of [2022], achieving our long-term vision of offering routine, reliable, and safe access to space. By that time, we anticipate confirming our first 1,000 private astronauts, welcoming them into our Future Astronaut community, of which we already have 700.”

There are-understandably-ethical and environmental concerns around space tourism, and some have criticized billionaire-funded space programs as frivolous and irresponsible when climate change and wealth inequality threatens humanity on a global scale. Spaceport America’s executive director, Scott McLaughlin, argued on the company’s podcast that tourism has always been at the forefront of cutting-edge technology. “[At first], it was the wealthy who could afford [cell phones and plane travel] and that’s kind of what’s happening with these short rides to space.” (Whether that justifies the actions of the mega-rich is seriously up for debate.)The next step in space travel, said McLaughlin, will be flying from one spaceport to another; instead of being weightless for just a few minutes, you could be weightless for up to half an hour as you fly from one side of the world to the other. Even more next-level, we-meaning those with an expendable, uh, $5 million for a three-night stay-might soon be able to stay overnight in space. The Gateway Foundation, in collaboration with Orbital Assembly, recently announced plans to open the first space hotel by 2027, describing it as “a destination hotel, a low Earth orbit cruise ship, or a city in space,” with hotel rooms, restaurants, exercise facilities, bars, research pods, and more.

Until then, space tourism done from the ground can whet your appetite for exploring the firmament. Along with Final Frontier’s regular tours, hit White Sands National Park for superior stargazing and bi-annual excursions to Trinity Test Site; venture east to Roswell to spot the extraterrestrials we might soon call neighbors; or let Truth or Consequences be your jumping-off point to the titanic satellite dishes of the Very Large Array. All of the above make it clear why New Mexico has long been a prime place to get acquainted with the cosmos.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Megan Eaves is a travel writer and editor at Nightscape and Visit Uzbekistan.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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