I'm on rutted, dirt roads in the Jornada del Muerto desert of southern New Mexico headed to Spaceport America, the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport. It's adjacent to White Sands Missile Range where, for 70 some years, assorted rockets, nuclear bombs and other WMDs have been tested.
My useless GPS reports this 3,200 square miles of restricted air space as one monstrous black hole. I'd have never found Spaceport Operations Center (SOC, for short) or Virgin Galactic's Gateway to Space if it wasn't for Aaron Prescott, the rocket scientist whose college friends can't help but break the tenth commandment: "Thou Shall Not Covet."
They're insanely jealous, he says, of his position as Business Operations Manager for New Mexico's $209 million entry into global commercial spaceflight. He works with madcap entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson -- whose left eye is on the security badge required to get into the New Mexico Space Authority (NMSA) -- and other aerospace firms contracted to fly from this remote high desert location. Prescott calls it the Kitty Hawk of space travel.
Since 2006, 17 rockets have been launched here -- "Unmanned, so far," Prescott says. "We want to make sure people are buying roundtrip tickets." -- and 551 have slapped down $200,000 for Virgin Galactic's three days of astronaut training and two hours in space. 'Course, that's chump change for the likes of Ashton Kutcher, Justin Bieber and Kate Winslett, to name a few of the already-paids who probably make that in, say 10 minutes of "Two and a Half Men."
Mixing it up with celebrities is just one of the perks. Here are five more:
1. Free Drinks at the Astronauts Lounge. When you're Katy Perry, another who forked over $200 grand, you tend to travel with an entourage. Minions are more than welcome to hang out at the Spaceport, clap when you blast off, even follow your every G-force on giant monitors -- "We could probably configure the flights with an iPhone app," Prescott says, "But you gotta put on a show." -- but the spacesuit dressing room and third-floor lounge with the free champagne? That's for Bransonauts only.
2. Five minutes of being weightless. Much of the two-hour flight involves getting to the other side of the Karman Line, the line that divides earth's atmosphere from outer space. But at 60 miles up, you can see 1,500 to 2,000 miles in all directions or, to put it in perspective, that's a view of the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico at the same time.
3. No need to be a perfect specimen of humanity. Qualifying for NASA requires brains like Einstein, 1,000 hours of in-command flight time and the ability to pass a rigorous physical. Only an elite few make it in. As a Bransonaut, you don't even need a pressure suit. "At three and a half to six Gs, it's like a really awesome roller coaster," Prescott says, adding that at nine Gs, you'd black out.
4. Bragging rights. Being the first to get your Boy Scout "Space Badge" is nothing compared to the VIP invitations to Branson's private Caribbean island home or his South African game reserve. Last year, for example, he held an Astronaut Forum, a tour of the LEED Gold 110,000-square-foot Virgin Galactic terminal and dinner at Mesilla's historic Double Eagle steakhouse.
5. 360-degree skies. I'd pit the sunset in southern New Mexico to any painting in any art museum anywhere.
For the rest of us, Follow the Sun offers a three-hour, $59 bus tour.