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LOHAN's Plucky Playmonaut touches down at Spaceport America

El Reg recce team scouts New Mexico facility

By Lester Haines with David Patterson in New Mexico, 15 Dec 2014

Our plucky Playmonaut sensationally landed at Spaceport America in New Mexico last Thursday, although sadly not this time at the controls of the Register's soaraway Vulture 2 rocket ship.

The diminutive Low Orbit Helium Assisted Navigator (LOHAN) pilot walked the tarmac of the fabled gateway to the heavens as myself and David Patterson of Edge Research Laboratory checked the place out, gathering vital information for the big event.

My Stateside trip was designed to kill four birds with one stone, tackling most of the advance legwork ahead of the full-fat mission: check out the Spaceport; import the Vulture 2 into the US; collect the spaceplane's rocket motor reloads; and see just what on God's Green Earth is going on with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Naturally, this being LOHAN, things didn't go exactly according to plan. I was due to fly out to Denver last Tuesday morning, so sure enough I was in the A&E department of St Mary's Hospital in Paddington all of Monday night, having been struck down by a mysterious pneumolurgy.

I'm obliged to the staff for getting me fit to fly, and indeed to David for his subsequent assistance for this huffing and puffing old timer. Suffice it to say, between us we got the job done.

And that job basically involved getting from Colorado to New Mexico, including a lot of this...

David at the wheel of the car during our trip

...and this...

View from the car during the road trip

...a touch of this...

The Sandia Peak in in Albuquerque, complete with hovering hot air balloon

...even more of this...

View of New Mexican desert from the car window

...and a bit of this...

David outside the car in the desert during our trip to Spaceport America

...before the Spaceport drew close:

Road sign indicating distance to Truth or Consequences

The nearest point of civilisation to the facility is the town of Truth or Consequences, formerly known as Hot Springs. In 1950, it changed its name to that of a popular radio quiz show in return for the traditional 15 minutes. It then got back to being a sleepy tourist/retirement venue.

It's a bit of trek from T or C, as it's dubbed locally, to SPAAM - as we've just dubbed the spaceport.

Apparently, a proper road is in the offing, which will certainly be a good idea when paying Virgin Galactic customers finally begin to roll up at the gate. Here's the initial view of architect Sir Norman Foster's impressive space arse, as it appears at first glance.

The road leading to the distant spaceport

Of course, this is the rear entrance of Virgin Galactic's terminal, because the business end faces the runway - or "spaceway" as Technical Operations Manager Bill Gutman corrected as he gave us the guided tour.

David Patterson and Bill Gutman on the runway at Spaceport America

Behold - a huge pair of Galactic Buttocks

That's Bill above on the right with David out on the spaceway, and here's the aforementioned terminal front face:

David outside the Spaceport America terminal

"So, what do you think it looks like?" enquired Bill, unaware that we'd already decided it was the glass frontage of a huge pair of galactic buttocks.

"Erm, over $200m of New Mexico taxpayers' dollars?" I rather unkindly replied, although not without justification, given recent local unrest about the cost of the project and its current status.

The inside of the terminal/hangar has yet to be fully kitted out, and at the moment contains just a few builders pottering about and a full-size replica of SpaceShipTwo. Sadly, we can't bring you snaps of any of that, since it's off-limits to non-Virgins.

Mission Control

We resisted the temptation to overpower Bill and head off in search of Richard Branson's black leather swivel chair and cat litter tray, because the embearded billionaire is much more likely to be running ops from the nearby admin building.

As well as offices, the dome contains the spaceport's impressive firefighting kit...

The firefighting trucks at Spaceport America

...and yes, it has a mission control centre, much to the delight of David:

David in mission control at Spaceport America

If all of this looks like a frivolous jaunt, be aware that another purpose of our visit was to pinpoint an exact landing spot for the Vulture 2 and report back on the surrounding terrain, at the request of autopilot wranglers Linus Penzlien and Andrew Tridgell.

Panoramic view of the runway centred on north

Panoramic view of the runway centred on south

That done, complete with the illustrative spaceway panoramas seen above, we also checked out comms, internet connections, storage and anything else we might need at the facility, to ensure it's all is on hand and available when the big day arrives.

And with our mission accomplished, there was no way I was going to pass up a labcoat and pipe combo photo opportunity, for LOHAN's boffinous scrapbook:

Lester on the runway in his SPB lab coat

Lovely. Thanks very much to Bill for opening the spaceport gates for us, and we look forward to returning soon.

Regarding spaceplane imports, motor reload acquisition and LOHAN's current status with the FAA, can you guess which one of these is not going according to plan? More follows ... ®


For a bit of fun, we slapped the GoPro 2 on the car for the trip from Albuquerque to Truth or Consequences, and David put together this timelapse representing around three-and-a-half hours down the New Mexico highways:

Good work, and it's worth noting that David took time off work to travel to New Mexico with me. Without him and all our magnificent volunteers, we'd have no chance in getting off the ground.

The Low Orbit Helium Assisted Navigator, sponsored by...

  • EXASOL logo
  • Pulse_Eight
  • SecQuest logo
  • Lucidica logo
  • NXT logo

...and with the invaluable support of...

  • Edge Research Laboratory logo
  • Space Graphic Solutions logo
  • 3D Robotics logo
  • 3T RPD logo
  • University of Southampton logo
  • Applied Vacuum Engineering logo
  • Escher Technologies
  • Flashpoint Fireworks logo
  • HAB Supplies logo
  • Rock 7 logo
  • Random Engineering logo

More from the lovely LOHAN:

  • You can find full LOHAN coverage right here.
  • If you're new to LOHAN, seek out our mission summary for enlightenment.
  • There are photos our our magnificent Vulture 2 spaceplane here, and detailed structural plans here.
  • For your further viewing pleasure, we have all our photographic material stored on Flickr.
  • Our LOHAN and Paper Aircraft Released Into Space (PARIS) videos live on YouTube.
  • We sometimes indulge in light consensual tweeting, as you can see here.

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