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BUCKLE UP

STEVE WAID STANDS in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, listening to the sound of the future. We’re in the middle of nowhere — 32 miles from the nearest town, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico — on land sacred since the 1500s, when the Spaniards first trekked through New Mexico on El Camino Real, or the Royal Road. Today, trucks carrying asphalt thunder past us while Peterbilt “belly dump” trailers lumber along with their cargo of aggregate rock. A paver beeps as it creates a layer cake of hot asphalt atop soil and cement.

A dust devil swirls off in the distance, reminding us just how desolate this place is. At night, rabbits and coyote take back the land from man and his machines.

Waid, an employee of David Montoya Construction and a New Mexico native, is overseeing construction of the 200-footwide and nearly two-mile-long runway, the first phase of Spaceport America. It is the world’s first purpose-built spaceport designed specifically for commercial space travel. “This isn’t a pie-in-the-sky deal. I’m building a spaceport,” Waid says, patting a Caterpillar. The spaceport’s runway should be finished this summer, he says, as construction continues on the Terminal Hangar Facility — a futuristic bit of architecture where private astronauts (each paying up to $200,000 to Virgin Galactic) will check in and train before taking a thrill ride into suborbital space.

It could all happen as early as 2011. Yet despite the tech wizardry of the spaceships, the spaceport itself couldn’t be simpler: cement and asphalt launching a dream. Waid, as project engineer for the runway, oversees bulldozers and graders fitted with lasers, robotics, and a GPS to make sure the landing strip is exactly 48 inches thick, which includes a base of two feet of compacted soil, covered by six inches of soil cement, then four inches of asphalt, topped by a 14-inch-thick layer of concrete, all for spacecraft that will literally glide back to Earth from nearly 70 miles up. “Romans invented concrete, and now we’re using the same material for private space travel,” muses Waid. “I’m so proud of this project and so proud to be part of it. My family goes back to the Spanish land grants in the 1500s here in New Mexico.”

The Wright brothers were, of course, dubbed liars for claiming they could fly. If Spaceport America seems equally ludicrous, consider that the New Mexico Spaceport Authority has let $90 million in contracts and boasts clients such as Virgin Galactic and Lockheed Martin. Plans for construction of tourist welcome centers in Truth or Consequences and Hatch, New Mexico, are in the works for next year, and there’s even a hard-hat tour of the construction site (www.spaceportamerica.com).

On the tour, what strikes you is the history of the place — explorers seeking new worlds, overcoming nature’s odds. Spaceport America lies in a barren stretch of New Mexico known as El Jornada del Muerto, or the Journey of Death, because of its lack of water. That didn’t faze Spanish conquistador Don Juan de Oñate, who somehow survived a trip up El Camino Real with 400 people and 7,000 head of cattle. The trail became a busy trade route between Mexico City and Santa Fe, luring army scout Kit Carson and Apache warrior Geronimo as well as outlaw Billy the Kid.

Today in New Mexico, the dry weather and desert isolation that proved so daunting to early travelers are what appeal to the rocketeers. The father of modern rocketry, J. Robert Oppenheimer, fled to Roswell in the mid-1940s after being ridiculed for his ideas. Werner von Braun launched his V-2 rocket — the first human artifact to go suborbital — from nearby White Sands Proving Ground in the 1940s. NASA still uses White Sands for astronaut training and as a communications hub for its satellites worldwide.

Spaceport America takes advantage of White Sands’ no-fly zone — one of only two in the U.S. where all commercial air traffic is banned (the other is over the White House). It doesn’t hurt that the area also offers 300-plus days of ideal weather and a mile-high elevation, which saves energy and fuel. Stand out on the desert floor now, and you can already catch experimental rockets going up from spaceport land: There were three launches in 2009, including a secretive Lockheed Martin test shot, with four or five set for this year. One client — Celestis Inc. — sends up the ashes of loved ones for subspace memorials.

“The idea is to create a low-cost window to space,” says David Wilson, a one-time Spaceport skeptic who is now Spaceport America’s PR man. “It’s not all about space tourism. That’s the sexy thing. It’s about the emerging commercial space industry. The bigger deal is incubating a spaceline, traveling from Spaceport America to Australia in a couple of hours, skating on the edge of space where there is no atmosphere,” says Wilson.

Lunatic maybe, but I keep thinking of Steve Waid out there, his hand on that massive Caterpillar, watching the paver lay asphalt for the runway. The Wright brothers and Don Juan de Oñate seemed crazy too. Look how that turned out.