UPDATE: The third-annual Las Cruces Space Festival, due to return March 30- April 4, has been postponed. The Festival Executive Team has met with City officials to discuss possible dates for rescheduling the Festival later in the year.
Alice Carruth, executive director of the 2020 Las Cruces Space Festival, wants to show that working in the space industry “is not just being a rocket scientist.” Alice was a producer at local radio station KTAL in 2018 during the inaugural year of the Space Festival. The interviews and the people she met inspired her to volunteer as a co-organizer for the 2019 festival. She now works for Solstar Space Company, a New Mexico-based firm dedicated to establishing Wi-Fi communications in Earth’s orbit. Alice reflects on her current career path, inspired in part by that first Space Festival, when speaking to the public about the range of talents sought by local space ventures.
At a talk to NSMU business school students, most of whom had never considered space as a career, she had a simple message, “I have a media degree and I work in space!” The Las Cruces Space Festival was born during a series of after-work discussions in December 2017 by three cohorts looking to spread awareness of local space activities to the public.
Jonathan Firth, then at Virgin Galactic, Joe Bullington of Jacobs Technology, and Dawn Starotska, regional director of Big Brothers/Big Sisters, decided to create the Las Cruces Space Festival from the ground up. Taking a cue from President John F. Kennedy’s bold challenge to land an astronaut on the moon “before this decade is out,” they motivated themselves with an ambitious timetable. The festival was to be organized around Yuri’s Night, an international event celebrated every April 12 in honor of the first human to reach space, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, during his 108-minute orbital flight around Earth on April 12, 1961. The first three-day Space Festival in 2018, conceived and organized in less than four months, drew 1,500 visitors. The festival opened on April 12 at the Mesilla Valley Mall, followed by a day at NMSU, and concluding at the Downtown Plaza. The plaza event featured a space-themed costume parade starting at the full-size Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo mockup, which was transported to the city hall from Spaceport America especially for the festival. Las Cruces city officials saw the potential for a recurring, unifying local event, and challenged the organizers to expand the festival in 2019.
The 2019 Space Festival expanded to seven days, opening at a widely attended Spaceport America open house and wrapping up a week later with a variety of space industry and educational booths at the plaza. The festival’s focus on STEAM events — targeting science, technology, education, art, and mathematics — was capped by an internationally acclaimed exhibit, “Our Place in Space.” This traveling exhibition featured high-resolution Hubble Space Telescope images curated by Dr. Antonella Nota of the Space Telescope Science Institute and space-inspired artworks. Dr. Nota traveled to Las Cruces to preside over the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Mesilla Valley Mall and speak about her role as associate director of the European Space Agency. The 2019 festival also featured a wide range of events to appeal to kids of all ages. These included free movies at the Rio Grande Theater, including Contact (with scenes filmed at the New Mexico Very Large Array) and The Martian. Southwest Expeditions organized a field trip to Kilbourne Hole 50 years to the day that Apollo 12 lunar module pilot Alan Bean practiced geology sampling at the site in preparation for the second manned moon landing. In total, 23 guest lecturers gave talks at venues across Las Cruces.
The Challenger Center hosted simulated space missions to Mars. In one week, the second Las Cruces Space Festival drew 5,000 people. This year, Yuri’s Night falls on Easter and so the space festival will run a week early, from March 30 to April 4. A full slate of free events revolves around the festival’s theme of Making Space for Everyone. Events kick off Monday evening with a world premiere screening of the 20-minute documentary, We Choose to Go to the Moon at the Rio Grande Theater starting at 7 p.m., followed by a question
Written by Chas Miller