His Virgin Galactic Unity spaceplane was dropped from under the wing of a giant “mother ship” flying at 50,000 feet before igniting and roaring vertically to more than 50 miles, the FAA and NASA-defined border of space. After a few minutes of weightlessness, Unity glided to a landing at Spaceport America in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
On July 20, Jeff Bezos—founder of Amazon and Blue Origin—was delivered to space (see “Pilots: Wally Funk,” p. 112), albeit by a vertically launched rocket booster and capsule, similar to the Mercury flights of Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom. Instead of gliding to a rolling landing like Sir Richard and the space shuttle, Bezos’ New Shepard (named after Alan Shepard) capsule parachuted to Earth, landing with a thump on the Texas desert.
Both companies claim they will offer suborbital rides into space starting late this year or 2022, but past schedules have been so optimistic that I wouldn’t rely on it.
According to the National Spaceport Network Development Plan, prepared by the Global Spaceport Alliance for the FAA’s Office of Spaceports, there are currently 13 FAA-licensed spaceports in the United States. Most of these don’t yet have any actual rocket launches, and some that do are air-launched vehicles, dropped from high altitudes and out of sight of spectators. Consult the website of each “spaceport” to get an idea of its current activities (far right). Four launch and landing sites are privately owned and accessible only by invitation, including those owned by SpaceX and Blue Origin. Once flights become regular occurrences, no doubt the companies will provide access to visitors who want to watch the launches and landings.
Good enough for Neil, Buzz, and Mike
Until Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are fully operational, the best place to see a rocket launch is still the Kennedy Space Center. It offers an interesting visitor center and museum, tickets to view launches from sites within the space center, plus tours of the historic launch pads and mission control. Florida’s Space Coast is an excellent spot for a family vacation, with numerous tourist activities, accommodations, and dining options nearby. After a launch, you can stroll the Atlantic beaches, visit Disney World, or cruise down to Daytona for a race.
On the West Coast, launches from Vandenberg Space Force Base are usually visible from the town of Lompoc, California, and the nearby Pacific beaches, such as Surf Beach.
About twice a year, resupply missions for the International Space Station launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island in Virginia. These launches can often be seen along the Eastern Seaboard as far north as New York City.
Space.com provides a continually updated calendar of rocket launches, so consult it before planning a rocket trip.
Branson’s flight launched from Spaceport America, 18 miles southeast of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. It’s not really a “port” yet and more of a test facility. It’s closed to the public; however, private tours can be scheduled. The tour operator said that Branson’s flight was visible from a public road, A-13, which passes less than two miles from the facility. Parking along the access road, County Road A039 (which was closed during Branson’s flight), will get you even closer to the runway. There are plans to allow public viewing of launches, perhaps starting in 2022. spaceportamerica.com
To see a Blue Origin flight, you’ll need to get to the town of Van Horn, Texas, and drive north on TX-54N to a point five miles west of the launch site. It’s about 150 miles from El Paso. For the July 20 launch, a portion of that road was closed. Like Spaceport America, the Blue Origin site is not yet open to the public, but it will need to accommodate the family members and friends of those who are paying big bucks to fly into space in the coming years. blueorigin.com
Elon Musk, another billionaire with a space company—SpaceX—selected a site at Boca Chica, Texas, on the Gulf Coast as his “SpaceX South Texas Launch Site.” Musk has focused on orbital missions to the ISS, although he has plans to offer tourist flights, too. Currently, most SpaceX flights are launched from the Kennedy Space Center or Vandenberg Space Force Base, and these would be the places to go for a SpaceX launch. kennedyspacecenter.com