I press my face up to the window as the plane descends towards Albuquerque airport and fantasise I'm floating down from space. Future passengers landing at the nearby Spaceport America will probably be treated to a similar view: terrain gashed with canyons, mountains puckered like prunes, and white dunefields of powdered gypsum.
The spaceport is the first built for the express purpose of ferrying paying customers to the edge of space. It's a taste of the spine-tingling future envisioned by today's nascent commercial space firms. Yet one of its nearest towns, Truth or Consequences, feels like a ghost town, with many businesses shuttered. Is this really the future playground of well-heeled space tourists?
As I arrive at the spaceport, its hangar rises up from the desert dirt like a giant stingray. Right now, Spaceport America isn't quite finished. It boasts a runway and the brand new hangar, which will be used for the spaceport's first, and so far only, permanent tenant, Virgin Galactic.
But as I peek through the windows that ring its runway-facing side I see the interior is still incomplete. That makes it difficult to imagine that sometime perhaps in the next two years people who have paid $200,000 each will be looking out on the runway, awaiting their flight to the edge of space.
Yet that's the plan. Over 100 of those in attendance for Virgin's "dedication" of the hangar have already put deposits down to fly on Virgin's SpaceShipTwo. They watch in awe at a test flight of WhiteKnightTwo, the plane that will help the spaceship on its way. Slung between WhiteKnightTwo's two fuselages, SpaceShipTwo will be transported to 15 kilometres above Earth, before it breaks away and fires its engine to reach the edge of space. Six passengers and two pilots will then experience a few minutes of weightlessness on flights that will last a couple of hours.
"I think the first moment when I see the curvature of the Earth will be the really exciting part," says David Whitcomb, co-founder of Revolutionary Tennis Innovations, who was the 186th person to sign up for the trips. "Even if the first one crashes, I'm still going."
There are still technical hurdles to overcome before commercial trips begin. So far, Virgin Galactic has only tested SpaceShipTwo without rocket power. The rocket motor has been undergoing separate tests, and the firm hopes powered flights will begin next year.
The spaceport's construction is funded by taxpayers in New Mexico. Promised that it will bring 2000 jobs to the area in the next five years, they have paid $209 million, via bonds. "We think it will help New Mexico," says Judy Wallin, a local cattle rancher. After December 2013, these bonds expire and rent from Virgin Galactic is expected to pay for operations.
Christine Anderson, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, says New Mexico is the ideal place for a spaceport. As it is at an altitude of about 1400 metres, rockets need less fuel to take off than if they were starting out at sea level. The 330 clear days per year also help, as does the area's sparse population, which means there is less chance that a crash would endanger large numbers of people.
Perhaps best of all is its location next to the 890,000 hectare White Sands Missile Range the site of the first space flight by a rocket launched on US soil. This means the spaceport's airspace is restricted, so no commercial aircraft fly overhead.
But White Sands' control over this airspace could be a double-edged sword. In April, Armadillo Aerospace of Texas had to leave the spaceport without flying a rocket because the missile range had re-leased the airspace back to its own customers.
Virgin says it isn't worried. It's aiming to begin with one tourist flight per week, which shouldn't create many scheduling issues with the missile range. Eventually it wants to make two flights a day, says Brian Binnie, who piloted SpaceShipOne, an earlier version of the tourist ship, when it won the $10 million X Prize in 2004. "Twice a day, there might be some give and take with the missile range," he acknowledges. "But it'll be a nice problem to solve. I think where there's a will there's a way."
Back at the hangar, Richard Branson, Virgin's CEO, accepts a placard announcing the spaceport's address 1 Half Moon Street from Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin. There's a party afoot, complete with acrobats and Kate Winslet.
I know it's just PR, but I am dazzled. I hope that the spaceport pans out so that more than just loan companies can flourish in Truth or Consequences. Congressman Steve Pearce echoes my thoughts. "People are desperate and hungry to believe that there is still a sense of a dream, a sense of adventure a sense that we're going to be OK."