The Science Behind “America Declassified” – White Sands

6 12 2013

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Unintended Consequences

My adventures as a scientist-host with the Travel Channel television series, “America Declassified” took me across the blinding flats of the White Sands Missile Range, which had unintended consequences.  Unnervingly, it deposited a sliver in my mind that I simply cannot ignore.

In forging outward across the staggeringly-immense, derelict runways we now know as White Sands Space Harbor, witnessing firsthand the contrast between what had until so recently been a fully-functional spaceport and today’s blatantly inhospitable reality, I was left with a persistent awareness of a haunting, obscure truth:

Ours is a civilization that is mature (and immature?) enough to have developed space travel technology… and then completely let it go.

Space Shuttle Columbia's landing at White Sands concluding STS-3 in March, 1982.

Space Shuttle Columbia’s landing at White Sands concluding STS-3 in March, 1982.

Sifting the Future Past

This disturbing truth, revealed to me as we barreled across the slow-motion avalanche of selenite crystals relentlessly erasing the spaceport from existence, is that from this moment onward the science of studying humanity’s artifacts – archaeology – will include not just arrowheads and pottery, but also advanced spaceflight technology.

Could it be that we have reached an era where we – due to social, political, or economic difficulties – actually regress technologically?  A time where what we currently achieve is less advanced than what we achieved in the past?

It is here that we venture headlong into the little-known, frontier science of Space Archaeology.

Close-up, showing the intense degradation of the runway markings.

Close-up, showing the intense degradation of the runway markings.

Archaeology at the Final Frontier

Beyond the obvious, the study of historical space technology also includes places like White Sands Space Harbor.  The facility boasted several features unique to human history, like runways that were flat, long, and wide enough to be used to train people to land vehicles returning from space, or the fact that they were marked in such a way that they could be seen by human pilots reentering the Earth’s atmosphere at nearly 18,000 miles-per-hour, or speeds greater than Mach 23(!).

Admittedly, this concept of archaeology runs contrary to our popular view of archaeologists.  It seems difficult, for instance, to envision Indiana Jones racing against the clock to retrieve a turbo-cryo-pump from an abandoned rocket testing facility before it is demolished, or diving to the bottom of the ocean to rescue a historic rocket engine before it rusts to pieces… Yet, that’s exactly what a select few scientists are attempting as I type.

Travel Channel’s Citizen Science-Explorers

In the final analysis, it could very well be that viewers who share in this segment’s exploration of modern lore, tromping off the beaten path with me onto restricted territory at White Sands, were themselves briefly transformed into citizen space archaeologists.

-And in this light, we might all unwittingly serve a very important role through the lens of history – to help ensure that while spaceflight technology might indeed be lost to the sands of time, it will never be completely forgotten.

Semper Exploro – Always Explore!

Ben McGee

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Space: The Northern Frontier

23 05 2010

So, you want to build a rocketship?

-Lines like these are sprinkled across advertisements during the 1960s for everything from whiskey to sprinkler manufacturers, painting themselves as part of a brighter future.  So, with expectations 50 years ago set so high, in many respects the 21st Century to them would be something of a disappointment.

However, we’re starting to rise to the challenge of our fathers’ imaginations, and for those with starry-eyed dreams of spacecraft shipyards and a future on orbit, Frontier Astronautics of Chugwater, Wyoming may be your answer.

Wyoming Atlas-E silo, ca. 1960s. Credit: Frontier Astronautics

Utilizing a converted Atlas-E missile silo, the young, first-of-its-kind corporate space development company offers a full spectrum of spacecraft development services and products, from indoor and outdoor rocket engine test areas, vehicle design and assembly services, onsite cranes, a machine shop and storage space, and they even produce commercial quantities of rocket-grade hydrogen peroxide onsite.  To top it off, they’re in the process of applying for an official FAA space launch site license, making them the second private spaceport in the country (if approved).

Check them out.  Tell your friends.  Keep your rocket dreams alive, or perhaps let your imagination take flight for the first time.  This place is real.

I know in my bones that it’s outfits like these that will change the space game forever.





Informed Consent Act shields private space firms in NM

9 03 2010

New Mexico has just signed into law the “Space Flight Informed Consent Act” – laying the foundation for shielding private spaceflight firms from retaliatory lawsuits in the event of an accident.  As lawsuits are one of the greatest threats to the private spaceflight industry, this legislative defense establishes a much-needed foundation.  Even though it only applies in New Mexico, (until future “spaceport” states follow suit,) I see the passage of this legislation as a fantastic sign that commercial space endeavours will be able to accept the risk inherent in spaceflight and continue moving forward.








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