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Roswell, New Mexico: Red Bull Stratos Launch Site

Red Bull Stratos in the September 2012 Red Bulletin magazine Red Bulletin Magazine

 

Red Bull Stratos is a mission to the edge of space in which Felix Baumgartner will ascend to 120,000 feet in a helium balloon and come down to Earth in free fall, collecting useful scientific data and setting four world records as he does so:

1. Break the speed of sound unaided
2. Free fall from the highest altitude
3. Longest free-fall time
4. Highest manned balloon flight

The Red Bulletin is following the mission closely, each issue focusing on a specific topic. All back issues can be downloaded for the iPad.

THIS MONTH we head to the quirkiest place in America, Roswell, New Mexico, the launch (and hopefully landing) area of Red Bull Stratos.

65 years after the alleged UFO crash landing that put the fifth largest city in New Mexico on the map, Roswell is back on the international stage, thanks to Red Bull Stratos. Of course, at the moment, UFOs are still hogging the limelight. A quick count on the drive along Main Street turns up 57 extraterrestrials. Next time, there are bound to be at least another three or four. Little green men advertise virtually everything: Eating, sleeping, drinking, cars, shoes, music, plus of course the whole merchandising cavalcade, from T-shirts with clever slogans (“What if we don’t believe in you?”) on through to paper weights.

Only the baker who’s located in a small side alley beside the museum with the rather long-winded name of “International UFO Museum and Research Center” is somewhat ambivalent. Hedging his bets, he also believes in Jesus, with stickers for the resurrected and the crash-landed harmoniously side-by-side on the shop front.

And all this because of one William “Mac” Brazel, who, in the summer of 1947, found some strange things on his farm 30 miles north of Roswell. He thought the origin of the debris and balloon remnants scattered about seemed suspect. However, between a telephone call to the local newspaper and the worldwide UFO fever that lasted and was cultivated for decades lay the completely misguided communication policy of the U.S. Air Force: The more they denied, disguised and hid, the more interested the public became in the story. America, already a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theorists, had found a great topic -- and one that could be very nicely stoked over and over again.

The International UFO Museum and Research Center on Roswell’s Main Street still oozes the unbeatable charm of the ’70s. Laminated neatly on cardboard are typewritten placards telling stories of what happened or perhaps didn’t. Always vague enough not to make themselves look completely ridiculous, but still putting the pieces of the puzzle together powerfully enough not to disappoint those who want to believe that aliens made it to Earth.

What had Mac Brazel really found? Says Jonathan Clark, medical director of Red Bull Stratos, “Part of a balloon, quite similar to the one we use for our Red Bull Stratos.” And the alleged aliens? Clark laughs. “Instrument-equipped dummies, like those used by the automobile industry for crash tests. In the 1940s such dummies were new, so how could the rural folk of New Mexico of all people have had any idea of what they were?”

Roswell thrives on the UFO hubbub: The city has found its USP, it lives well from it, it grows, and you would be as hard pressed to find a local who doesn’t believe in the existence of aliens as you would be to find an agnostic in the Vatican.

What would Roswell be, what would New Mexico be, without aliens? Truth is, it’d probably still be a pretty exciting place.

We take Highway 380 toward the east. Not even an hour from the Roswell city center is the Bottomless Lakes State Park. The sun beats down mercilessly; signs warn visitors to bring enough drinking water. The sparse vegetation that grows here is tough, grey and leathery. These plants have adapted to survive with little moisture, just as all of the specialists here have evolved for these unique conditions.

At the Bottomless Lakes, the most northerly stretch of the Chihuahuan Desert meets the prairie, and this yields gypsum deposits. Water dissolves the gypsum and leaves so-called sinkholes -- craters in the earth that fill with water. These are the Bottomless Lakes. The turquoise color of the water gave cowboys the idea that they were unfathomable (actually, they are maximum 88.5 feet deep). Over a square mile one can find both fresh and saltwater, flowing and stagnant. Living in this water are fish and frogs that are found nowhere else. And watch out for the rattlesnakes on land.

Behind every bend one expects to encounter the trailer of Michael Madsen, aka Budd from Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece Kill Bill 2, with Bill’s exquisite 1969 De Tomaso Mangusta parked out front. But in real life it’s just a retired couple from the north with their gigantic brand-new RV. Linda and AJ are vacationing here. They do every year. It’s because of the area’s good dry air: Linda has problems with her bronchitis, and her reticent husband suffers from arthritis (says Linda).

We turn down a side road and cruise along at 50 mph through a landscape picture-perfect enough for a Calexico album cover. A bridge, a sign: Felix River. If Felix Baumgartner is carried to the south by the wind in his capsule, he could actually land at the river that bears his name. The closest town was renamed Hagerman in 1905, which is kind of a shame, really, because back in 1894 it was first established with the wonderful name of “Felix.” Why the change? In honor of James John Hagerman, who had built the railway line from Roswell to where Carlsbad is today. (Carlsbad was called Eddy back then: Seems they like giving towns first names in New Mexico.) Railway lines like these changed the lives of people dramatically. Earlier, cattle herds were driven by cowboys on week-long marches from south to north and then back again. Now an entire profession has become obsolete. The railway drove the wild right out of the Wild West.

Many classic Wild West stories have been played out in this region. What Roswell is to aliens, Lincoln is to the gunslinging, cattle-rustling young outlaw Billy the Kid (famous on the big screen, in comics and on TV), who was eventually shot by his ex-buddy, Sheriff Pat Garrett. Lincoln’s celebrated villain was immortalized in Sam Peckinpah’s movie of 1973 (mostly because of Bob Dylan’s ingenious soundtrack) and is now a fixture in the canon of ultimate westerns.

Here, in the area around Lincoln, William H. Bonney, apparently the real name of Billy the Kid, lived, shot, killed, loved, hid and was captured. The border between the U.S. and Mexico has always attracted dubious characters -- people who have switched allegiances, or disappeared.

The border serves as a cutoff line between two worlds, between two lives: The cattle rustlers from the prairie who hid here; Black Jack Pershing, who led an expedition of men into Mexico to rout Pancho Villa; a poor smuggler, the unrequited love for a Mexican señorita, the Pueblos, the Mescaleros, the Apache, the Zuni. Those traveling through can recognize Indian territory first and foremost by the roadside casinos that sprang up and have brought a lucrative income for Native American tribes in the wake of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. And there is normally a liquor store nearby. It’s a picturesque but somewhat sad part of the country.

Should the wind blow Baumgartner a quick hour’s drive a little farther north, he might think he’s landed back home in Austria. The Ski Apache Resort in Mescalero is a full-fledged ski region even by Central European standards: nine lifts, more black runs than blue, the Sierra Blanca Peak at an elevation of 11,981 feet and an annual average snowfall of almost 15 feet. On the horizon you can see the bone-dry Chihuahuan Desert. It’s almost impossible to get more diversity over such a small area. If New Mexico were an apartment, it would be located in the city center of Tokyo and outfitted with Swedish furniture.

Should the southeasterly be a touch weaker, Baumgartner still might land in white powder but this time in gypsum sand. At 270 square miles, White Sands is the largest gypsum desert in the world, spectacular not only for its giant white dunes but also for all of the plants and animals that manage to survive in these conditions.

However, Baumgartner would be well advised to be careful in choosing his landing spot. Part of White Sands is a drone and rocket test site for the U.S. Army. Here, on July 16, 1945, the first nuclear bomb of the Manhattan Project was detonated. And 30 years ago the space shuttle Columbia landed here because of bad weather at the original landing site, Edwards Air Force Base in California.

In fact, it is somewhat improbable that Baumgartner will be blown this far to the west. But what if he were to descend exactly to the place of his departure? The airport in Roswell, the location that will serve as the launching pad for Red Bull Stratos, is the former Walker Air Force Base, which the military handed to the city on June 30, 1967. The Roswell airport and the Walker Air Force Base have a checkered history. During World War II, pilots were trained here. The two bombers that dropped the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were stationed here. When the military left they took everything with them. What remained were the runways: More than 5,000 acres inside the fenced terrain alone.

How does one manage such an expanse of tarmac with air connections? In 1991, the clever people of Roswell turned it into a parking area for aircraft. In the spring of 2012, 200 planes stood in Roswell. At the time the U.S. economy hit rock bottom the number was 350, says Jennifer Brady, “and we had more space available if we’d needed it.” She has worked at the Roswell airport since 1983; today the petite lady is the airport manager.

In fact, a few of the aircraft have been here since 1991. The fees they have run up must be stratospheric by now. The billing system works like in a parking lot. “We charge by the day, and in three different tariffs depending on the size of the plane,” explains Brady. The business is seasonal. In springtime, when vacation season starts, many planes leave, only to return again in the fall.

Brady and her team are a flexible bunch, relatively undaunted and open to special requests. She was a little surprised, though, when Joe Kittinger, the current record holder for a parachute jump and one of Baumgartner’s closest advisors, and some of the Red Bull Stratos crew walked into her office three years ago. But because the airport is a part of the municipal authorities, their request was met with open arms: Yes, Roswell had no problem serving as host for Red Bull Stratos.

An agreement was made for the area out at the back of the airfield grounds, where two empty hangars stand: Perfect for Red Bull Stratos, and far enough away from the parked aircraft, the normal air traffic, and all the UFO freaks, who have just one destination in mind: Hangar 84, where the alleged aliens were examined after their crash landing in 1947.

When all goes according to plan, Roswell will get a second attraction this summer alongside the UFOs. “We have plenty of room for a Red Bull Stratos monument at the airport,” says Brady. And Baumgartner, the man with a feeling for the locals, turned up for his first test jump wearing a bomber jacket -- but instead of his name, it said “Alien Hunter.” Roswell loved him for that.

 

 

Check out the September 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands August 14) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.

 

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