New Mexico's Space Triangle
Roswell, Alamogordo, and Las Cruces
by George Oxford Miller
If southern New Mexico has one thing in abundance, it's wide, open spaces. But the plains and mesas of the Chihuahua Desert also hide a kind of space that extends beyond the horizon, the kind that inspires visionary rocket scientists, secret government research, conspiracy theories, and religious cult leaders. Roswell, Alamogordo, and Las Cruces all have earned a place in space history as centers for both cutting-edge technology and space weirdoes.
In a popularity contest, weirdness usually wins over science. Say "Roswell" and the image of pop-eyed, spindly-looking creatures pops into mind. Since the famous 1947 "Roswell Incident," the small farming town has been world headquarters for UFO believers and conspiracy theorists. To get the inside scoop on what "really happened," stop at the International UFO Museum, housed in the old Plains Theater on the town's downtown drag. Little has changed in what we know about the Day the Earth Stood Still since that fateful event 60-plus years ago.
About 260,000 curious visitors flock to the UFO Museum every year. A map on the wall with pins stuck in visitors' hometowns looks like a flattened porcupine. Exhibits stretch back toward the old stage and wrap around the theater to front. Some of the assertions definitely raise unanswered questions. Why did the military ask the local undertaker for three child-sized caskets? Why did the army base PR officer announce that a UFO had been recovered, then recant the next day? Why was the nurse on call, who drew sketches of her goggle-eyed patients, immediately transferred? Looking at the evidence and the nurse's sketches, I want to believe, at least that there was some kind of government cover up.
Besides the Roswell facts, the museum offers videos and voice recordings of other UFO sightings, photos and the latest theories about crop circles, and copies of ancient depictions of alien astronauts. A side room holds the library with 5,000 books, 400 movies and videos, and thousands of newspaper and magazine articles, all open to the public.
"We're not here to change minds," Bridget Ceccacci, the librarian says. "If you have an open mind, we'll fill it with facts."
When Ceccacci says the museum helps a lot of students with assignments, I imagine susceptible minds soaking in the flood of museum facts. Then she tells me the most common question. "They all want to know why aliens don't have hair."
The library keeps a computer database on UFO sighting and photographs. Two came in from Texas the previous week. "Most can be explained. If they can't, we have experts, authors and people who have studied UFOs for decades, who help get the answers."
I ask a number of locals if they are believers. Like most, Suzy Wood, director of the city zoo and member of the annual Fourth of July UFO Festival committee, laughs and avoids the question. "I'm a believer in the economy. The dozens of UFO-related stores and the annual festival are great for the city."
Robert Goddard - Father of Modern Rocketry
Roswell's connection with space began long before little creatures crashed from the sky. In 1930 Robert Goddard moved to Roswell to conduct his liquid-fuel rocket experiments. By 1940 he had launched 56 rockets from a nearby ranch.
"He is known as the Father of Modern Rocketry," Ellen Moore, curator of the Roswell Museum and Art Center tells us as she shows us his laboratory and workshop.
Goddard received patents for a liquid-fuel rocket and a multi-stage, solid-fuel rocket. He was to rocketry what the Wright brothers were to powered flight. NASA named the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland after the scientist. Goddard died in 1945, one month after the Manhattan Project detonated the first atomic bomb at the Trinity Site on the White Sands Missile Range, just 125 miles away.
Alamogordo, 100 miles west of Roswell, adds to the area's space legacy with the White Sands Missile Range, off limits to visitors, and the Museum of Space History. The five-story glass-fronted building includes the International Space Hall of Fame, a mockup of the Space Station, and an Air and Space Park with rockets and other space equipment. Just west of town, the other-worldly landscape of the White Sands National Monument covers 115 square miles of desert with rolling waves of snow-white sand.
Las Cruces is the southern gateway for the Missile Range and NASA test facility. Long before a rocket blasts off with astronauts and payloads, NASA tests the launch systems at the missile range, so the road to outer space passes through Las Cruces.
The town had been called "The Crossroads of History" since the 1854 Gadsden Purchase, which secured land from Mexico, was signed in Mesilla, now part of the city. The Mesilla plaza, anchored by the 1852 San Albino Church, remains one of the most authentic 19th century Hispanic plazas in the West. We weren't expecting to find another space connection on the historic plaza, but we got a surprise in the Shalam Colony and Oahspe Mystery Museum.
In 1884, John Newbrough, a New York dentist, moved to Las Cruces to establish a utopian community of spiritualists. The colony purchased 1,000 acres of farmland and established an orphanage. The Las Cruces New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum includes an exhibit on the colony, which was abandoned when Newbrough died in 1901.
Angels directed Newbrough to buy a typewriter and by way of automatic writing type the book, "Oahspe." The "new bible" describes how space aliens visited the Earth. "His book was the first recorded mention of the word 'starship,'" Les Lee, a docent for the tiny museum tells us. "Five hundred verses refer to starships."
According to the revealed word, aliens colonized the planet and mated with earth creatures to create the human race. Lee laughs good naturedly when I suggest that maybe the aliens were returning to check our progress when they crashed in Roswell.
Southern New Mexico will soon have a new space claim to fame. If all goes as planned, groundbreaking for the $200-million Spaceport America, a dusty patch of desert 30 miles north of Las Cruces, will take place June 19. Visitors centers will be built at Hatch and Truth or Consequences and will bus tourists to see the launches, scheduled to start in late 2010. The FAA licensed the launch facilities with Virgin Galactic, Armadillo Aerospace, and Lockheed Martin as anchors. For about $200,000, passengers can buy a ticket into space, an out-of-the-world experience you can't get anywhere else but in southern New Mexico.
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