We had the pleasure of road tripping for five weeks around New Mexico in 2016. It’s an absolutely fantastic state, with incredible landscapes, mind-bogglingly tasty food and somehow, very few visitors (or inhabitants!). It is one of Jess’s favourite states; she lived here for a year and grew to absolutely love it and wanted to return and explore it together.
New Mexico might be the fifth largest state in the country, but it ranks near the bottom in terms of population. Which means a lot of beautiful wilderness to explore and, more perfectly, road trip through.
We’re going to be writing quite a bit about this state in the coming months because we definitely feel more people should be visiting – and not just for the annual balloon fiesta (although that is pretty cool).
First though, lets talk about space. After all, every now and then some poor person stumbles upon this blog looking for answers to cosmic questions. Which, despite the title, I don’t exactly provide in spades. So in this post, maybe just once I’ll be on theme!
You see, if you like space, and anything to do with space (I’m a huge sci-fi fan), then New Mexico is the state to visit. Not only because of the Roswell landings, although, naturally, that’s a must-visit. New Mexico has got all kinds of space stuff going for it, so much so in fact that there’s a trail you can follow around the entire State, with notable space related stops all over the place.
Giant radio telescopes? Check. A real life spaceport? Check. New Mexico has it all! Let’s get cracking with some of my:
Highlights of the New Mexico Space Trail
If you look at the official website of the New Mexico Space Trail, you’ll find 52 locations dotted across the state that have a connection to man’s quest for space. 52! That’s a lot of space related fun. We’ve whittled the official space trail down to some of our highlights, plus added our own. In no particular order, our favourite space related activities in New Mexico were:
The New Mexico Museum of Space History, Alamogordo
If you want to get a good idea of man’s space exploration efforts, then the New Mexico Museum of Space History is the place to come for that. Set on a hillside above Alamogordo (with spectacular views across the city and valley to boot), this five storey building is absolutely jam packed with information about the history, science, technology and people involved in mankind’s space exploration efforts.
It’s also not just a museum, although that part of it will certainly take you plenty of time to explore, featuring everything from exhibits on early rocket technology through to a space shuttle landing simulator. It’s also home to the International Hall of Space Fame, the John P. Stapp Air & Space Park (a whole pile of space related machinery and equipment), the Daisy Decelerator Track and a planetarium / theatre.
At the last of those, we watched an excellent large screen production about man’s journey to space, which added to the overall knowledge. You can buy combo tickets when you arrive, and I’d definitely recommend taking in at least of of the shows in the theatre, either a planetarium screening or a theatre screening.
The Space Murals Museum, near Las Cruces
The Space Murals Museum is best known for its gigantic painted water tank sitting off the highway, adorned with a number of murals that tell the story of the US space program from the sixties to the eighties.
And that part of the attraction is certainly worth seeing, although, truth be told, there’s a lot more to the Space Murals museum than a gigantic painted water tank.
Essentially, the museum is an expansive private collection of all things space relatde that the owner Lou has been able to get his hands on over the years. There’s everything from discarded space station mockups to V2 rocket sections to left-over food from previous space trips. It’s probably still good, but I’m not sure I’d want to eat it.
It’s definitely a peculiar museum, but it’s well worth visiting – there are just so many oddities and knick knacks to look at. There’s also an excellent gift shop, where I bought some very well priced NASA commemorative stickers, and the inevitable freeze dried astronaut ice cream.
Very Large Array
You might not have visited the Very Large Array, but the odds are you will have seen it somehow – basically, whenever a film or TV show needs an impressive pile of satellite dishes (more accurately, radio telescope antennae), they tend to call upon the Very Large Array.
More formally known as the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array, the most famous cameo the VLA has had was in the 1997 movie Contact, with Jodie Foster, but has also featured in a Terminator movie and a Bon Jovi music video, amongst many other things.
When you visit it, you’ll realise why. It’s a pretty staggering complex, featuring twenty-seven “antennae”, each of which has a dish diameter of 25 meters and weighs 209 tons. These are all positioned by railway tracks, and their position can be varied into one of four configurations – depending on the frequency that the telescopes are searching for.
The VLA, in case you were wondering, is a radio telescope, used for all sorts of things, mainly research and investigation into objects in space, from pulsars to black holes. It’s basically a telescope, but instead of looking at the visible light spectrum, it looks at the frequency we known as radio waves. These tend to be fairly weak, hence the requirement for a mind-bogglingly large bit of equipment.
Visiting the VLA does require a bit of a drive as it’s not exactly near anything – this was done on purpose to minimise interference from human activity. It’s definitely worth it though – it’s an incredible sight to see, and there’s a small museum, a documentary film (voiced by Jodie Foster!) and a walking tour of some of the key sights.
A spaceport. Like an airport, but for space! You can bet I was super-excited to visit this vision of the future which is already operational in the high New Mexico desert.
Ok, so operational is a bit of a stretch. You can’t exactly come here and hop on a departing spacecraft to a nearby star system. Or, well, anywhere. There’s no handy departure board with far-flung galaxies listed. As yet, you are firmly grounded on Earth, and spaceships are not plying the runway.
But that doesn’t really matter. Spaceport America is a wonderful place to visit because it feels like a wonderfully optimistic place. It’s a vision of mankind’s potential future, one where travelling into space is as normal as travelling by plane. The folks who lead the tours are wonderfully enthusiastic and knowledgeable, bringing everyone up to date on latest developments in the very fast paced space industry.
We definitely enjoyed this visit, touring the key buildings, looking at the huge runway and learning all about the history, present and future of both Spaceport America, and Space travel in general. It definitely gave me hope that maybe one day I’ll be able to expand this blog to meet it’s namesake!
Spaceport America currently has to be visited as part of a tour. Tours depart from Truth or Consequences, and last around four hours – for full booking information, visit the official booking site.
The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History
If all this state road tripping seems like a bit much, and your trip generally revolves around visiting Albuquerque (maybe for the balloon fiesta?), don’t worry. You can still get your science on! Head to the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History.
This offers a detailed overview of everything nuclear, from the science of nuclear technology, to the people who made it happen. There are overlaps with Los Alamos (see further down the post), however, the nuclear science museum has a lot of unique material, including a number of nuclear related machinery, from a B-52 bomber to a nuclear submarine sail. There’s also an excellent walk through the history of nuclear technology, from its early beginnings, to use in conflict, to pioneering research in nuclear medicine.
My favourite part was wandering around outside amongst the huge planes that are parked up here. If you’re in Albuquerque, don’t miss this off your list of things to do (here are 20 more to add to your list!).
It’s impossible to talk about New Mexico and space without covering Roswell. Roswell is a name synonymous with aliens, famous around the world for the mysterious incident which happened in the fifties which allegedly involved a crashed alien spaceship.
The truth about this mystery is still somewhat unknown (ok, very unknown), but that hasn’t stopped Roswell from capitalising on the UFO phenomenon.
You can visit the UFO museum to learn more about the incident itself, with newspaper clippings, testimonials and, well, weirdness galore. Or you can just wander the town, where you’ll find all sorts of oddities, from themed post boxes to a full sized spaceship in the McDonald’s. Basically, it’s fun, and you’ll likely leave with a smile, and maybe a question. Which is a good result in my head.
Los Alamos National Laboratory
How about visiting a town that was once home to a population of thousands, but officially didn’t exist? Well, Los Alamos is the place to come. It was here during World War 2 that the research and development of the first nuclear weapons took place, culminating in the devices that were detonated in Japan.
Today, Los Alamos is still a cutting edge research facility, but now it’s actually on the map, and you are welcome to visit. The focal point of your visit should be the Bradbury Science Museum. This is where you can learn about the Manhattan project – everything from the science of atomic weapons through to the remarkable people who worked here, as well as a history of the development of the location itself.
Once you’re up to speed on that, take a walk around the town, with the help of the official Los Alamos Historic Walking Tour Map (we picked up a copy of this map at the Science Museum). You’ll find everything on this route from the home of Oppenheimer to ancestral Pueblo dwellings to a homesteader’s cabin – it’s basically a journey through time.
National Solar Observatory, Sunspot
Last, but not least, in my list of highlights from the New Mexico Space Trail is the National Solar Observatory, which sits up in the mountains of the Lincoln National Forest, about a thirty minute drive from the pretty alpine town of Cloudcroft.
Here, as the name suggests, scientists watch the earth’s nearest star – our sun! As well as gorgeous views thanks to its mountain top location, you can also visit the Sunspot Visitor Centre and Museum, and take a walk around the park where you’ll find lots of different telescopes and sun watching equipment. In the museum itself you’ll find a variety of exhibits where you can learn all about astronomy, telescopes and even the US Forest Service. A worthwhile visit.
That summarises some of our favourite space related activities in New Mexico. As you can see, there’s a lot of space-related fun you can have in New Mexico, as part of a trip around this wonderful state. Here are some resources to help you further plan your trip, both content we’ve created, and content we found useful.
- My guide to how much a trip in the USA costs to help you plan out a budget.
- If you’re in New Mexico, you’ll want to spend some time in Albuquerque. Here are 20 things to do there!
- A guide to attending Space Camp USA, as well as visiting the U.S Space and Rocket Center
- If you’re looking for ideas for how to get to space, see our guide to going to space as a tourist
- And you’ve got to visit the Balloon Fiesta – here’s a guide to getting the most from a trip to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
- My friend Lauren went to Roswell, and this was what she found.
- Photo highlights of Route 66 in New Mexico, because that’s an epic road trip you might want to take. If do you, learn how to plan your Route 66 trip here.
- The official New Mexico Space Trail website, plus the Southern New Mexico Space Trail site.
- A New Mexico guide book, for even more ideas and information to aid in planning your trip
And that sums up my post on the highlights of the New Mexico Space Trail! Have you visited New Mexico or any of the attractions on this list? Share your experiences in the comments below!
So you know, we received complimentary media passes for our visit to Spaceport America and The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History, but covered all other entry costs for the other attractions in this article, as well as covering all our own travel expenses.