When I first toured Spaceport America at the end of 2011 – an assignment I was more than happy to take as an El Paso Inc. reporter – Virgin Galactic, I wrote, “could send tourists into space as soon as 2013, if everything goes as planned.”

Yes, 2013.

Workers were still putting the finishing touches on the striking terminal hangar facility, which looked like “a stingray just emerging from the sand on the seafloor,” and there was already reason to be concerned about its star anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic. The company’s target date for human spaceflight was perennially two years away.

Located 100 miles north of El Paso “in mostly empty desert broken by roaming buffalo and wagon tracks left by settlers who pushed into the Western frontier,” the burning question was: Would the spaceport launch the region into a new frontier (private space travel) or was it an empty promise?

In 2014, The Daily Mail called Spaceport America “the world’s most spectacular white elephant,” and not without justification. New Mexico taxpayers footed the $220 million bill to build the “world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport.” Then, Virgin Galactic, owned by billionaire Richard Branson, announced delay after delay.

A test pilot was killed and another injured in 2014 after one of the company’s test vehicles broke apart above the Mojave Desert – the first U.S. space-mission fatality since the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.

Meanwhile, another billionaire, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, was pushing forward with plans of his own to make access to space cheaper. His company, Blue Origin, tests rockets at a secretive launch facility east of El Paso near Van Horn, Texas, placing the Sun City at the geographic center of a growing business of spaceflight for private citizens. (It’s worth mentioning Tesla founder Elon Musk also has a space company, SpaceX. He launched his Tesla Roadster into orbit in 2018.)

Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic were founded about two decades ago, yet it has all come down to the final nine days.

Branson went to space last Sunday on the company’s first human spaceflight, and Bezos is scheduled to do so Tuesday. And the vehicles their companies have engineered are very different – one a rocket plane that lands on an airstrip, and the other a reusable rocket booster with a capsule that drifts home by parachute.

After Branson’s trip, Twitter seemed divided into two groups. One faction, amazed by the achievement of a private company sending humans to near space, saw it as the beginning of something important, akin to the invention of the assembly line for the mass production of automobiles. The other, with concerns closer to home, saw it as an ego-fueled waste of money – money that would be better spent alleviating hunger.

I lean toward the first camp.

True, the rockets are essentially glorified roller-coaster rides to near space for those who can afford the ticket. But in the early days of the automobile, the contraptions were nothing more than dangerous, expensive and unreliable toys for the 1 Percent.

When viewed narrowly, what expenditure – from a Netflix subscription to a fancy new bridge – can pass muster when compared to meeting basic human needs? Please, give generously to help those who are hungry. But there’s also room for dreaming of space.

New York City in the late 1920s comes to mind.

The Big Apple was in the midst of a building boom as tycoons “raced for the sky.” Perhaps the most famous rivalry was the one between the developers of the Chrysler Building and 40 Wall Street building.

There are so many wonderful details to the story as competing egos added floors and tweaked designs to ensure theirs would be the world’s tallest. But my favorite detail is how the sneaky architect of the Chrysler Building designed the building’s spire in secret to beat his rivals.

The story is told in a 2014 episode of the 99 Percent Invisible podcast. (A great podcast by the way if you’re looking for something new to listen to.)

“Van Alen had the 185-foot spire secretly constructed inside the building and on Oct. 23, 1929, the vertex emerged from the building’s core, ‘like a butterfly from its cocoon.’ With that, the Chrysler Building became the tallest building in the world.”

It held that title for less than a year, losing it to the Empire State Building.

Petty? Yes. But the “race to the sky” gave us modern engineering marvels and the iconic skyline of New York City. Over the next couple of decades, it will be interesting to see what the private space industry brings the borderland – fool’s gold or the mother lode.


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