In a sense, America's space age began near here back in 1946, with the firing of a German V-2 rocket to an altitude of 71 miles from White Sands Missile Range. On Friday, rocketeers and schoolchildren came full circle, bringing model rockets and big-rocket dreams back to the V-2's old haunting grounds.
"This is where it all started, and this is where it's all going to start again," said Steve Bennett, chief executive officer of Starchaser Commercial Space Access, a British-based company that recently expanded to New Mexico.
Even as Bennett and other rocket entrepreneurs spoke, the hiss of model rocket launches could be heard in the background, as more than 1,000 schoolchildren swarmed around exhibits and demonstrations at Alamogordo's New Mexico Museum of Space History.
The Federal Aviation Administration's associate administrator for commercial space transportation, Patricia Grace Smith, struck a forward-looking note in her comments to fifth-graders gathered around her. "We're counting on you to turn your dreams into reality," she said.
Friday's round of educational activities, tied to this week's Countdown to the X Prize Cup exposition, was conducted almost literally in the shadow of a Canadian Arrow rocket mockup that was modeled after the V-2. The Canadian Arrow team, backed by a recently formed venture called PlanetSpace, brought the mockup to the museum to show it off.
This week, PlanetSpace announced that it would donate a full-scale V-2 replica to the White Sands Missile Range Museum in 2008, assembled from components of Canadian Arrow rockets.
"V-2s are extremely rare — something we hope to fix, of course," said Geoff Sheerin, president and chief executive officer of PlanetSpace. The company has announced plans to start launching passenger-worthy rockets, based on the V-2 rocket, from a Canadian site by 2007.
"It's now come full circle," Sheerin said.
The V-2 struck a familiar chord as well for Bill McCamley, chairman of the Doña Ana County Commission in New Mexico. McCamley remembered visiting V-2 exhibits at White Sands as a child — and instantly recognized the Canadian Arrow's shape.
"Seeing that one up there — it's strange," he told MSNBC.com.
Over the past few days, New Mexico officials have been touting its role in hosting the X Prize Cup festivities — and the development of the Southwest Regional Spaceport near Upham, N.M. — as signs that the state is taking its place alongside California, Florida, Texas and Oklahoma as an aerospace center. "This is what this whole adventure for New Mexico is all about," said Rick Homans, secretary of New Mexico's Economic Development Department.
McCamley put a more practical spin on the rocket dreams: "We're really in this for the jobs," he said. He recalled that it was hard for him to find a job when he returned to New Mexico with a Harvard degree, and said there was still a shortage of high-quality, high-tech jobs in the region.
"If this takes off, pun intended, hopefully we'll see some scientific and engineering jobs open up," McCamley said. "Plus, it's cool."
The students attending Friday's festivities would likely agree with that last statement. Volunteers from NASA's White Sands Test Facility, the X Prize Foundation, the museum and other organizations demonstrated kid-friendly versions of space exercise equipment, communications equipment, and even a G-rated version of a space toilet.
The rocket launches were among the highlights: Throughout the afternoon, kids brought up model rockets they had worked on for days for launching under adult supervision. Kenzi Ponder, a fifth-grader from Cloudcroft Elementary School, said she enjoyed having her V-2 model launched.
"It hit a car," she said. "It was exciting." (Don't worry: Neither the car nor the rocket was damaged.)
The most important lesson? "Safety comes first," Ponder said.
The day's lessons could have an effect for years to come: For example, when Ponder and six of her classmates were asked whether they would grow up to become astronauts or rocketeers, seven hands went up, with a chorus of "Maybe!"