The Outer Space Undergroud

The headquarters of the international Space Access Society is a four-by-nine-inch bin at a Mailboxes & More in Ahwatukee.

Henry Vanderbilt, the society's executive director and lone employee, has good reason to keep his physical address a secret. Over the years, Vanderbilt's been a magnet for every kook from here to Roswell, New Mexico--folks who'll blow half a day chattering about intergalactic Nazi invasions and alien autopsies.

"I would just as soon not be quoted on the flying-saucer nuts," Vanderbilt says.

But some out there would label Vanderbilt a nut, too.
After all, he believes with all his heart that one day soon, people will board craft at Arizona spaceports and zoom into orbit the way Phoenicians hop Southwest Airlines to San Diego in July.

Henry Vanderbilt is no rocket scientist, but he is also not nuts. What he is is one of the nation's foremost experts in the concept of commercial space travel. Perhaps it is the obsessive certainty with which he pursues his vision that makes him seem a bit eccentric. He knows it's going to happen soon, and he's probably right.

Vanderbilt is part of a quiet but well-credentialed hive of Arizona activists who are trying to make sure the state gets its share of the impending commercial space boom. They are convinced that if the state doesn't act now, golden opportunities will be lost.

Vanderbilt and his cohorts believe space can be accessible to everyone--as a means to launch satellites for a millifraction of the current cost, deliver people and packages halfway around the world in 45 minutes, or offer 12-hour luxury cruises complete with weightlessness, space sickness and a stunning view of Earth. Initially, a trip to orbit will cost about $15,000 per person.

The viability of cheap access to space depends on the success of a reusable, nonexpendable rocket commonly called a Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO) vehicle.

Vanderbilt lobbied the Department of Defense to fund the DCX, the first in a series of test models he hopes will lead to the development of a fully functional SSTO. The DCX successfully completed its testing phase last July at White Sands, New Mexico. Although the DCX was designed to go only two miles up, Vanderbilt says the test proved that a reusable rocket bed can launch a vertical rocket using liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.

Now NASA has joined the Department of Defense to fund the next stage of the experiment, the X33. The X33 will be a third the size of a real spaceship, and will not carry passengers. But it will be designed to test the viability of lightweight composite materials and a monitoring system. Three aerospace firms--Rockwell International, Lockheed Martin and a partnership between Boeing and McDonnell Douglas--have designed models, and the government will choose one this summer. Testing should be completed by 1999 and, if all goes as planned, Vanderbilt says commercial space travel will be possible by 2005.

Somebody will make a lot of money building the SSTOs, the sites where they will be tested and, ultimately, spaceports. A handful of states--Colorado, Florida, California, New Mexico, Alaska--have devoted significant energy and hundreds of thousands of dollars toward wooing such development.

Arizona's space cadets want a piece of the action, too, and toward that end, the Legislature established the Arizona Space Commission in 1991. This year, for the first time, the commission has asked the Legislature for a modest $50,000 appropriation.

Arizona may not lead the race, but experts believe the state--which offers relatively cheap open space, clear skies, stable weather and burgeoning high-tech and astronomy industries--could be a contender.

Arizona is also rich in intellectual property, home not just to Henry Vanderbilt but to some of the world's most devoted and distinguished space-travel proponents:

* G. Harry Stine, a noted science-fiction and nonfiction author considered by experts to be the visionary in the area of commercial space travel. He lives in Phoenix.

* Hugh Downs, the host of television's 20/20, chairs the National Space Society in Washington, D.C. He's a Carefree resident.

* The L-5 Society, a group of would-be space colonists with chapters all over the world, was created in Tucson.

* NASA's Space Engineering Research Center for Utilization of Local Planetary Resources--a lab devoted to finding resources in space--is located at the University of Arizona.

Why are so many space activists drawn to Arizona? Arizona's a frontier state, says Stine, and space is, as the saying goes, the final frontier.

On the other hand, for some, it's just coincidence. Henry Vanderbilt followed a girl to Mesa and stayed.

John Lewis, a professor of planetary science at the University of Arizona and a member of the Arizona Space Commission, has his own intriguing theory as to why so many space junkies can be found here.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.