Welcome to Spaceport America. Your Rocket Will Depart Soon. Ish. – WIRED

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Did you know New Mexico is the cradle of rocketry? Of spaceflight? It is.

And yet when you think about America and space, what comes to mind? Florida? Sure. California? Check. But New Mexico?

Here in the land of enchantment, people are a little disenchanted with the rest of us for our ignorance.

“It’s kind of a load of crap, everyone thinking Florida is the place for space,” a woman tells me at the McDonald’s in Alamogordo. “New Mexico invented space.”

She has a case.

It all started with Robert Goddard, the guy who wrote the book on rocket science. Literally (A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes). Ninety years ago, before he came to New Mexico, Goddard launched the first liquid-­fueled rocket at his aunt’s farm in Massachusetts. It came down two and a half seconds later in a cabbage patch, proving the viability of liquid propellants—and that Goddard was going to need a bigger yard. A few years later, looking for a wide-open, flat, non-cabbage-infested space where he could (a) see where a falling rocket landed and (b) know that the falling rocket would not set a neighbor’s house on fire once it did land, he moved to Roswell, New Mexico.

That Roswell.

It was in Roswell that Goddard set up his main workshop, where he built bigger and faster rockets and came up with the principles behind gyroscopic navigation. Shortly before he died in 1945, Goddard was taken to a Navy lab and shown a top-secret rocket that had been captured from the Nazis: the V-2, which Hitler had used to terrorize London. After the war, a bunch of V-2s were secretly shipped to, yes, New Mexico, where they were tested and dissected with the help of the very man who had masterminded their development under the Nazis, Wernher von Braun.

Twenty years after von Braun was making rockets for Hitler to bomb London, he was overseeing the American space program, building the Saturn V rocket that would fly us to the moon.

That’s what you learn—if you read closely—inside the New Mexico Museum of Space History, a small building located in Alamogordo, approximately 100 miles from Spaceport America.

Every time the space chimp saw a blue flashing light, he was to push a lever. If he didn’t, they shocked his feet with electricity.

The museum’s best exhibit, its most powerful relic, if you will, is not inside; it’s in the parking lot. Or, really, just next to the parking lot, buried at the foot of the flagpoles that bear the US and Smithsonian flags. Flags that are forever flapping in the winds coming off of the Sacramento mountains.

If you stand at the foot of the flagpoles and look down, that’s where you’ll see the plaque:

World’s First Astrochimp—Ham

Ham proved that mankind could live and work in space.

Dedicated March 28, 1983

Like I said, everything starts with apes. Before he was Ham, his handlers, called him simply Number 65. Or, sometimes, Chop Chop Chang. Before they could send humans into orbit, NASA’s scientists needed to know if spaceflight would badly slow a pilot’s reaction time. So they trained Number 65: Every time he saw a blue flashing light, he was to push a lever. If he didn’t, they shocked his feet with electricity. If he did, he got a banana pellet.

Mmmm … banana pellets.

On January 31, 1961, technicians strapped chimpanzee Number 65 into an 83-foot-tall Redstone rocket at Cape Canaveral and launched him into suborbital flight. The blue light flashed and the chimp pressed his lever. Sixteen minutes later, after he had ascended to an altitude of 157 miles, his pod plopped down in the Atlantic. America’s first hominid in space was home.

Welcome to Spaceport America. Your Rocket Will Depart Soon. Ish. – WIRED