The early 1900s were a time of great social upheaval in our country. During the years leading up to the Ludlow Massacre, miners all around the country looking to make a better life for themselves and their families set up picket lines, organized massive parades and rallies, and even took up arms. Some died.
I’ve always wondered why history like this was never taught in school when I grew up. Could it be that the powers that be would rather keep this kind of thing under wraps?
Here is Woody Guthrie’s tribute to the good people who fought in the battles of Ludlow to help make a better tomorrow for everyone — you can just start the video and then start reading, if you wish:
Coal Country, Colorado
100 years ago, the Rocky Mountains were the source of a vast supply of coal. At its peak, it employed 16,000 people and accounted for 10% of all employed workers in the state of Colorado. It was dangerous work; in just 1913 alone, the mines claimed the lives of over 100 people. There were laws in place that were supposed to protect workers, but largely, management ignored those, which led to Colorado having double the on-the-job fatality rate of any other mining state.
It was a time of company towns, when all real estate, housing, doctors, and grocery stores were owned by the coal companies themselves, which led to the suppression of dissent as well as overinflated prices and an extreme dependence on the coal companies for everything that made life livable. In some of these, workers couldn’t even leave town, and armed guards made sure they didn’t. Also, if any miner or his family began to air grievances, they might find themselves evicted and run out of town.
Union Parade, Trinidad, Colorado, 1913
The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) had been organizing for many years in the area, and this particular company, Colorado Fuel and Iron, was one of the biggest in the West — and was owned by the Rockefeller family, notoriously anti-union.
Put all this together, and it was a powder keg.
The Ludlow Colony before the massacre, 1914
Strikers, Ludlow Tent Colony, 1914
When a strike was called in 1913, the coal company evicted all the miners from their company homes, and they moved to tent villages on leased land set up by the UMWA. Company-hired guards (aka “goons”) and members of the Colorado National Guard would drive by the tent villages and randomly shoot into the tents, leading the strikers to dig holes under their tents and the wooden beams that supported them.
Why did the union call for a strike? The workers wanted:
Recognition of the union as bargaining agent,
An increase in tonnage rates (equivalent to a 10% wage increase),
Enforcement of the eight-hour work day,
Payment for “dead work” that usually wasn’t compensated, such as laying coal car tracks,
The job known as “Weight-checkmen” to be elected by workers. This was to keep company weightmen honest so the workers got paid for their true work,
The right to use any store rather than just the company store, and choose their own houses and doctors,
Strict enforcement of Colorado’s laws, especially mine safety laws.
The “Death Special,” an improvised armored car (with machine gun) built by the coal company’s private security
Cavalry charge on striker women in nearby Trinidad
Militia and private detectives or mine guards, Ludlow
The Powder Keg Explodes
The attacks from the goons continued, as did the battles between scabs (strikebreakers) and the miners. It culminated in an attack on April 20, 1914, by company goons and Colorado National Guard soldiers who kidnapped and later killed the main camp leader and some of his fellow miners, and then set the tents in the main camp ablaze with kerosene. As they were engulfed, people inside the tents tried to flee the inferno; many were shot down as they tried to escape. Some also died in the dugouts below the burning tents. In the first photograph below, two women and 11 children died in the fire directly above them. A day that started off with Orthodox Easter celebrations for the families became known as the Ludlow Massacre.
The “Death Pit”
Rear view of ruins of tent colony
Funeral procession for Louis Tikas, leader of Greek strikers
The 10-Day War
The miners, fresh off the murders of their friends and family members, tried to get President Woodrow Wilson to put a stop to the madness, but he deferred to the governor, who was pretty much in the pocket of the mine companies.
So the miners and those at other tent colonies quickly armed themselves, knowing that many other confrontations were coming. And they went to the mines that were being operated by scabs and forced many of them to close, sometimes setting fire to the buildings. After 10 days of pitched battle and at least 50 dead, the president finally sent in the National Guard, which promptly disarmed both sides.
While close to 200 people died over the course of about 18 months before and after the battles at Ludlow and the union ultimately lost the election, the Ludlow Massacre brought a congressional investigation that led to the beginnings of child-labor laws and an eight-hour workday, among other things.
But it also brought national attention to the plight of these miners and their families, and it showed the resilience and strength that union people could display when they remained united, even in the face of extreme corporate and government violence. Historian Howard Zinn called it “the culminating act of perhaps the most violent struggle between corporate power and laboring men in American history.” And the primary mine owner, John D. Rockefeller Jr., received a lot of negative attention and blame for what happened here.
The UMWA is still a solid union today, and there is a monument in Colorado to those who died in the Ludlow Massacre.
Last night, I watched the State of the Union address in a new way: without Twitter.
Wow, I’m such a saint! But not looking at my laptop was harder than it sounds. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I watched a major live event without Twitter, be it the 2012 presidential debates (lush ground for easy Mitt Romney jokes), the Oscars, or a prodigious historical moment like the election of Pope Francis. For the past few years, I’ve been among the horde live-tweeting major events with painstaking, almost cult-like determination. The routine has become a comfortable Hail Mary prayer for me: sprawl out on the couch in front of the TV, balance MacBook on lap, keep my phone in close distance to hear notifications. As soon as the debate or awards ceremony starts, my TweetDeck columns start rocketing by like that big wheel on The Price is Right. The goal: to slip in a joke funny enough that people will pluck it out of the chaos and either favorite it, retweet it, or in the best case scenario include it on a tweet roundup the next day. That’s how I spent last year’s State of the Union address, anyway. And probably the year before.
But last night, I didn’t do any of that. In fact, technically, I watched the State of the Union in two new ways: I couldn’t even drink to stanch the tedium that often comes with a 90-minute dose of federal politics. That’s because I was on the treadmill at the gym, where I watched President Obama’s speech on the tiny treadmill TV. So I watched. I jogged.
I didn’t try to be an armchair Jon Stewart.
The second screen, i.e. the laptops we hover over in the living room, has for many become a competitive real-time reality show more important — and perhaps even more entertaining — than what’s actually playing out on the television. Many broadcasters stoke this fire themselves by creating official hashtags and then streaming the savviest live-tweets onscreen for the world to see. During these events, social media engagement almost relegates reality to second place.
It gets even worse when the tide pool for Twitter attention is much smaller. For those of us in media, Twitter often transcends its de facto function as a live news source and turns into something more like a virtual SNL “Weekend Update” audition. This isn’t surprising, because media is a rarefied ecosystem where Twitter is vital to networking, especially as a creative medium on which you’re constantly supposed to be showing off drollery and skills that could get you hired.
But on those livetweeting nights, as I strain to parade my wit in front of Twitter and God, I rarely hear anything the president says, so engrossed am I in strip-mining every sentence and peccadillo for joke fodder that I can quickly churn out in 140 characters. I’m sure this experience is different for those who work in political media, who watch speeches like last night’s to cover them. I watch the State of the Union with Twitter the same way I watch the road if I’m texting while driving: dangerously distracted.
Last night, unburdened by TweetDeck and by the worry that other people were getting to the good jokes before I did, I noticed something different: I really, truly, watched the speech. I watched as the president wove his way down the aisle, stopping to hug Justice Ginsburg on the way. I listened to his predictable anecdotes about farmers and schoolteachers. I watched the Democrats give their standing ovations and the Republicans tepidly stay seated. It was all the usual shtick. But as I watched without Twitter one-liners streaming into my brain, I felt more present, more engaged, like I was inscribing this moment into a memory to be tasted years from now, of being 29 and living in Brooklyn and watching the then-president in 2014 tell us about Syria and the slackening recession.
I don’t mean to pat myself on the back for “unplugging,” or to weave my way into a humblebrag about going to the gym. (I am very, very bad at going to the gym.) The evening made me realize, though, that I’ve come to use Twitter jokes as some sort of simulacrum for the event itself, a way to avoid internalizing and engaging mentally in these huge broadcasted events. Neither the Golden Globes or the Super Bowl hold the gravitas as a presidential speech, but to enjoy them in the moment, away from the constant hum of the Twitter hivemind, can be just as refreshing, if only because by nature they happen just once in a lifetime.
Maybe some of us would do well to “graduate” from live-tweeting, because the constant pressure to find punchlines in everything can be exhausting and distracting. After a while, you realize you’re not only paying less attention to the live event itself, but you start to feel like you’re winking into the ether along with everyone else, just one more person who’s also said goodbye to her work computer and hello to her home computer for the night.
One of the poorest states in the nation has invested nearly a quarter of a billion dollars and 10 years in creating a hub for Richard Branson’s space tourism company, Virgin Galactic. Some see it as the crown jewel of a new space age while others call it a carnival for the 1 percent — but with persistent delays and mounting financial strain, Spaceport America is just trying to avoid becoming New Mexico’s costliest, most futuristic ghost town.
They came from the north by helicopter, flying over scattered cattle and mesquite brush and yucca plants straining skyward. To the east was White Sands Missile Range, where the first atomic bomb was detonated, and further east was Roswell, where the streetlamps are little green alien heads. Below them was that old muddy snake, the Rio Grande, and just west, a town called Truth or Consequences. But the men on that cherry red Bell 206 LongRanger chopper were not sightseeing. They were headed to the middle of the desert, where they planned to launch a bunch of spaceships.
It was December 2005, and Rick Homans ran the New Mexico Department of Economic Development for Gov. Bill Richardson. Homans sat shotgun in the LongRanger and behind him were three Brits: two top dogs in a company called Virgin Galactic and the godfather of all things Virgin, billionaire Richard Branson. He had recently licensed technology that in 2004 won the $10 million Ansari X Prize by taking the first privately built manned ship to an altitude above 62 miles, the internationally recognized boundary of space. Branson was confident that by 2007 they’d be making that trip on a daily basis.
As the chopper flew deeper into the desert, the men shouted louder into their bulky headsets. Homans knew he might not get another chance to spitball with these men he considered some of the top branding minds in the world, and so he had them brainstorming, a round robin of hollering over the propeller noise, to figure out a name for the place they were headed. And Richard Branson was the one who finally said it.
The name was one that encapsulated all the ambition of the project, one that suggested a collective ownership — the hope that access to space would soon be available to anyone who wanted it. It was one that outshined the rather mundane Southwest Regional Spaceport, by which the project had been known for the decade before Virgin Galactic flew into New Mexico. It planted a symbolic flag, a gesture fashioned in roughly the same spirit as Armstrong and Aldrin driving the Stars and Stripes into the surface of the moon 36 years earlier. Here at the beginning there was more than a little bit of the old space race bleeding into the new one, even though the New Space Race was not about a cold war, but a commercial one.
And so they called it Spaceport America.
Almost nine years later and little is known about Spaceport America. All the talk is of Virgin Galactic, the self-proclaimed “world’s first commercial spaceline”; since 2004 more than 700 people have forked over at least $200,000 for a ticket on the two-hour flight. Many of these “future astronauts” are celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Justin Bieber and Tom Hanks and Brangelina. (The Winklevoss twins bought their pair using Bitcoin.)
This is what they’ve paid for: WhiteKnightTwo, the Galactic mothership, will fly to 50,000 feet with SpaceShipTwo strapped to its underbelly. SpaceshipTwo and the six ticket holders seated inside will then be released from the airplane and rocket at up to 2,500 mph to sub-orbit some 70 miles high where they will be weightless for a few minutes before gliding back down to Earth and sipping champagne in the Astronaut Lounge and slapping high fives the way only people who have been to space can slap high fives. By 2012, 3,000 tourists were supposed to have made this trip, a goal not reached in part because of problems with rocket development, including a 2007 fatal explosion at test facilities in Mojave, Calif. There have been a number of the kinds of technological delays that one might expect from a fledgling industry, but nearly every year Galactic promises to begin operations anyway. The last nine years of promises without a spaceflight recently culminated in Branson biographer Tom Bower calling the billionaire Virgin mogul an overvalued and “aging sun lizard” whose Galactic company is a total sham.
But the untold story is one about New Mexico and its taxpayers, the people who paid for and built Spaceport America. The saga of their decade-old quarter-billion-dollar gamble on the aging sun lizard’s quest to dominate the commercial space industry often gets overshadowed in favor of playing up the diminished, yet quintessentially American dream of space travel. But whether the dream will be realized or whither or crash and burn, it will happen here in New Mexico, down the road from a town called Truth or Consequences.
There’s an ashtray for every barstool, and the pool table is right in the doorway, and beyond that there’s lots of room for two-stepping or staggering. I’m in Truth or Consequences at the Pine Knot Saloon on an uncharacteristically frigid New Mexico day in late November. On my drive in, the local radio had bemoaned Virgin Galactic failing to begin operations from Spaceport America in 2013. Richard Branson would not, they said, rocket to the edge of space with his kids on Christmas as he had hoped. Galactic would not be ready to fly for another year. Nobody at the Pine Knot seems too bothered by the news. There’s a man lying on a bench beside a telephone booth, napping before his night shift. Three guys slowly orbit a game of pool. Everything in the saloon is pine and covered in a little bit of sweat from joy and a little bit of sweat from toil, and there’s that thick bar air from years of liquor-swelled dreams that don’t quite break but just get stagnant and hang around.
The Pine Knot is the only bar in Truth or Consequences, a town with a population of about 6,400 and an annual median income south of $22,000. The largest employers are Wal-Mart and the public schools. Half the storefronts in the historic downtown are shuttered. Main Street stays pretty empty except for an Art Hop one night a month, when you can buy any kind of turquoise jewelry or Navajo rug or get your tarot read by Christopher the Bohemian Vagabond. The real treasure of downtown is its spas, which are fueled by countless natural hot springs. The name of this town was, in fact, Hot Springs until Ralph Edwards held a contest in 1950 that required the winner to rename itself after his popular radio show, Truth or Consequences. Though a handful of citizens moved out in protest, the name stuck. Now, 60 years later, their identity is on the brink of another unlikely and controversial makeover.
I’m hanging around the Pine Knot waiting to get a good look at Spaceport America. I’m sort of obsessed with it because I lived most of my life just on the other side of the mountains in a town called Alamogordo. I grew up gazing at these New Mexico skies. When I attended the 2007 XPRIZE Cup held near Alamogordo I stood next to a mock-up of a Galactic spaceship and told a local news crew that I aimed to be the first-ever poet in space. The poetry thing hasn’t worked out, but here I am still wondering if I’ll ever be able to wake up one morning in my own bed and then spend the afternoon weightless. But tonight I’m stuck at the bar because the one road leading out to the spaceport is down to one lane and that one lane is frozen over.
Even though I’ve visited Spaceport America once before, my experience of it wasn’t matching the hype. New Mexico Tourism Secretary Monique Jacobson had told me, “It can become an iconic destination like the Sydney Opera House or the Statue of Liberty.” Christine Anderson, executive director of New Mexico Spaceport Authority, also likened the building to the Sydney Opera House and told me it is an “iconic jewel in the desert.” Richard Branson (whose representatives at Galactic declined interview requests for this story) said at a 2011 dedication ceremony, “It could be one of the Seven Wonders.” I want to look at it again the way any of us want to look the future in the eye, to know for sure whether Spaceport America represents a paradigm shift for human travel or a boondoggle for one of the poorest states in the nation or a carnival fad for the 1 percent or a cathedral for a new kind of space-age spirituality.
When I ask the guys at the pool table if this is, in fact, the closest bar to the spaceport, they respond with an incredulous “Huh?” They’re aware of the spaceport’s existence, but they don’t know why I’d care to ask about it because, as they say again and again, not much is going on out there. Nobody’s flying to space.
Or, almost nobody. Bonnie, who calls herself a “sometimes employee” of the bar, smokes and smokes and tells me all about the “ashes of dead people that get launched into space over there.”
“That old guy from Star Trek and some astronauts,” she says. “They pay a bunch of money to just shoot their ashes in the air. Into space! And so we have to just … What? … Breathe them in?”
In the absence of Galactic operations, the only passengers who have lifted off from Spaceport America are the cremated remains of people whose families have paid UP Aerospace to launch their dead loved ones on a final joyride.
UP Aerospace is one of a few small commercial space startups that have been operating at Spaceport America over the last eight years. Together those startups have conducted 20 launches. But these have been relatively small rockets at a vertical launchpad secondary to the prized Virgin Galactic terminal, and they create a minuscule fraction of the revenue needed to operate the spaceport. UP Aerospace’s first operation, the first launch from Spaceport America in 2006, malfunctioned well before it got suborbital, crashed, and spilled the ashes of a veterinarian in the desert. Celestis is the company handling sales of space burials for clients like James Doohan (“that old guy from Star Trek”) and Gordon Cooper (the last of America’s Right Stuff astronauts to orbit Earth in Project Mercury). About its burials the company says, “Celestis missions are environmentally friendly in that no cremated remains are released into space.”
Bonnie assures me, though, that some of those ashes from Spaceport America’s first “tourist” are still scattered out there in the desert.
The Pine Knot Saloon: “They pay a bunch of money to just shoot their ashes in the air. Into space! And so we have to just … What? … Breathe them in?” Photograph by Arlen Albert
Out there in the desert means, specifically, 18,000 acres in the middle of the Jornada del Muerto, a stretch of mostly barren land between the sharp San Andres Mountains and the rolling Cabello Mountains that got its name from having killed so many Spanish travelers in the 17th century. Despite now being home to The World’s First Purpose-Built Commercial Spaceport, that area is still pretty remote and difficult to access. First, you have to get to Truth or Consequences. (A road connecting the spaceport to the larger southern city of Las Cruces is still incomplete.) Then you have to take a nearly hour-long bus ride along the one paved road that is sometimes down to that one lane. You could make the drive in your own vehicle but you’ll be turned away at the gates by a security guard sitting in a shack with black plastic bags on the windows — only official vehicles allowed. And anyway, you should leave the driving on this road to the professionals or the seasoned locals. Besides having steep drop-offs and winding wildly like all canyon roads, this one is infamous for flash floods, and last year one of them took the life of an Arizona worker on his drive home from tiling the dome roof of the Spaceport Operations Center.
I first took a bus to the spaceport in the summer of 2013, four years after construction on the main terminal began and two years after the lion’s share was complete. Virgin Galactic had finally begun paying its $1 million-a-year lease to New Mexico in January, but only after insisting on a $7 million upgrade to the still unused runway and the passage of state legislation that limited liability for themselves and their chain of suppliers in the case of an accident. But the real delay was the fact that Galactic was nowhere close to having their rocket motor perfected. And so the place was built but empty. There were 12,000 feet of pristine runway. There was the futuristic-looking terminal designed by the world-renowned architecture firm Fosters + Partners. It’s a strange building that fades up from the reddish desert in the shape of a horseshoe, and grows from almost sand-level on the south side into a three-story wall of glass that curves around the face of building. That spherical glass wall looks north over the runway like the cornea of a giant eye blinking open out of the desert after about a billion years of sleep.
“The then-governor said to me, ‘If you build me a spaceship, I’ll build you a spaceport.’ And I replied, ‘Well, I guess if you’ll build me a spaceport, then I’m gonna build you a spaceship.’ And then we shook hands.” Sir Richard Branson and friends rappel down the exterior of Spaceport America, October 17, 2011. Frederic J. Brown / AFP / Getty Images
Back in October 2011, Branson had rappelled from the roof of the terminal with his kids and a team of similarly suspended ballet dancers and declared Spaceport America open for business. He christened the terminal The Gateway to Space and showered it with champagne. But two years later, when my tour group visited in the summer of 2013, the champagne was all dried up. The Gateway to Space was an amazing thing to encounter in the midst of all that open range, but the facility had the eerie sense of one of the many ghost towns that you can find within miles in any direction, leftover from the New Mexico mining boom of the late 1800s. The building was immaculate on the outside but the guts of it were hollow, unfinished — like the façade of a movie set. The only people there were three firefighters who stayed busy washing their massive F-550 truck that was already so shiny from lack of use I wondered if they weren’t actually trying to scuff it up to give the monster a bit of character.
On the runway there were some skid marks, suggesting that Virgin Galactic had begun moving its operation from the test facilities at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California to its purpose-built home in the New Mexico desert. But the burned rubber, a security guard said, was from Will Smith’s private jet. The Fresh Prince had been there, just a few weeks earlier, shooting promotional photos for the doomed After Earth.
“We planned rocket races. Like NASCAR. But with rocket planes.”
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson mentions this offhand over the phone from his office in Santa Fe. He was governor from 2003–2011 with a brief 2008 presidential run sandwiched between the two terms. Today he’s just back from charity work in South Africa. I’m sitting on the ceramic tile floor of my adobe room at the Pink Pelican Motel in Truth or Consequences, killing time, still waiting for that November ice to melt off the lane leading to the spaceport.
The Rocket Racing League, though it sounds cartoonishly implausible, is an actual business that had hoped to operate at Spaceport America, but it ran into financial trouble and failed to build any kind of worthwhile fan base after its single exhibition at the Tulsa International Airport in 2010. Despite these kinds of burnouts, it’s hard not to feel absolutely confident about the future of the spaceport when talking to the guy still referred to by his entourage as the Gov. He’s reflective now that he’s not actively campaigning, a slow talker not because the words take time to formulate but because he wants to make sure they have time to settle in. We talk about his dreams of playing pro baseball and his backup dreams of being an astronaut. We talk about our years of gazing up at the New Mexico skies. More than once he says, “I consider the spaceport my legacy accomplishment.”
“I liked the idea of New Mexico and space. I thought a spaceport fit in.” The Gov says this like it was a decision he made on the fly, as nonchalant as a kid’s backup dream of being an astronaut. Rick Homans incubated the spaceport project as secretary of economic development in order to entice Virgin Galactic to the state. But even he confirms the gut decision. After a 15-minute presentation in 2004 about Galactic and a spaceport, the Gov simply looked at Homans and said, “Don’t screw it up, Dickey. Get out.”
“And from that moment on he never once wavered in his support for the project,” Homans says. “I have huge admiration for him as a political figure, to make a decision like that and then stick with it.” But that confidence must have stemmed in part from the guarantee that New Mexico would be the exclusive home of Virgin Galactic. Branson’s own story of that partnership, which he recently told to a crowd of businesspeople in the empty hangar of The Gateway to Space, is epic: “The then-governor [Richardson] said to me, ‘If you build me a spaceship, I’ll build you a spaceport.’ And I replied, ‘Well, I guess if you’ll build me a spaceport, then I’m gonna build you a spaceship.’ And then we shook hands.” Nine years later the ship Branson built hasn’t yet made it to space. But New Mexico has a spaceport.
The idea existed long before the Richardson administration. In June of 1963, just a month after the final orbital flight of NASA’s Mercury program, New Mexico Gov. Jack Campbell sent a letter to President John F. Kennedy that reads, “We in New Mexico believe the first inland aerospace port should be based here and earnestly solicit your acceptance of our views.”
By 1979 there actually was a spaceport of sorts operating in New Mexico. The White Sands Space Harbor was created to help NASA pilots train for landings. On March 30, 1982, the Space Shuttle Columbia landed there. The Space Harbor is a mere 50 miles east of Spaceport America, but its 35,000 feet of shuttle-ready runways have not been operational since NASA ended the shuttle program in 2011. And that brings the total amount of spacecraft runway in southern New Mexico not actively being used for space travel to almost 9 miles.
A V-2 rocket just after launch at the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico. NASA.gov
In the late ’90s, the current site of Spaceport America was in the running to become the home of the Venture Star, a reusable spaceplane NASA contracted Lockheed Martin to build as a replacement for the space shuttle. But when that program was canceled in 2001, the plans for a Southwest Regional Spaceport languished until Virgin Galactic flew into town and the project got rebranded: Spaceport America.
The difference between these other spaceport projects and the one that finally materialized was Galactic’s commitment to the state and its primary focus not on scientific breakthrough or exploration, but the unprecedented and undeniably sexy industry of space tourism. “I did a lot in the area of new job-creating initiatives, and I wanted to bring international prestige to the state,” Richardson says. “Space tourism could do that.”
The Gov was famous for getting behind big-eyed projects. Some, like the $300,000 he spent to convince the Mexican government to co-sponsor an NFL franchise in the region, never panned out. Others, like tax incentives to lure filmmakers to the state, have been incredibly successful. He says more than 135 films have been produced in the state because of those incentives — everything from Transformers to The Lone Ranger. The producers of Breaking Bad cite those tax incentives as the primary reason they chose to base their production in New Mexico rather than California and, as a result, an entire cottage industry of tourism has sprung up around the fame brought to Albuquerque by Heisenberg and his blue meth.
But many in New Mexico fear space tourism has already proven to be a flop leftover from the Richardson administration. One of the more outspoken critics of Spaceport America is Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, a conservative think tank in New Mexico. “Politicians have these big dreams and frequently they sell people and give this rosy picture of, Oh yeah, this is how we’ll fix the poor economy,” he tells me. “In reality space tourism is far more speculative and dubious than anyone actually knows. It’s like building an airport before the Wright Brothers had their first flight. That’s what New Mexico did.”
Bobby Allen, a county commissioner in Truth or Consequences, recently spoke to the Santa Fe New Mexican about the lack of return on his county’s investment: “Over a period of 10 years, we’ve been promised a lot of stuff. To date, we have seen none of it, not for the little people here in town.”
The “stuff” they’ve been promised dates back to Rick Homans’ 15-minute pitch in 2004. Homans tells me the original vision was for New Mexico to be the center of not just space tourism, but the whole commercial space industry. “You create research hubs that are focused on creating those technologies,” he says. “You become an innovation center. You have to do those things that are important and public to lay claim to being the epicenter of a new industry. That was our vision.”
But any informed observers will say the Mojave Air and Space Port in California is where all the breakthroughs are percolating. That facility recently released a promotional video calling itself “The Modern-Day Kitty Hawk,” and it may very well be right. Including Virgin Galactic, there are 17 commercial space companies using 19 rocket launch sites at Mojave. “It is the center of aerospace entrepreneurial development,” says Galactic CEO George Whitesides. “There is nowhere else where you can design, build, install, and test space equipment all in the same place. Mojave is the only place in the world.” While Galactic still plans to fly its tourists from Spaceport America, the dream of New Mexico becoming the “epicenter of a new industry” never materialized. One ray of hope is that Elon Musk’s powerhouse rocket company, SpaceX, recently signed a three-year lease with Spaceport America for tests of its Falcon 9R, a vehicle designed not for tourism but for lucrative NASA work carrying payload and eventually astronauts to the International Space Station. SpaceX continues buying up cheap land near Brownsville, Texas, to build its own spaceport in a poor rural area, so it may not be in New Mexico for long.
And so there have been almost none of the thousands of high-quality jobs Spaceport America was supposed to create over the last decade. Galactic job offerings announced via Twitter in the final months of 2013 were for nearly 50 positions to be based in Mojave, ranging from jobs like systems engineering lead to hydraulics systems engineer to propulsion test manager. In that same period only nine jobs to be based at Spaceport America were advertised, and those jobs were not lucrative engineering gigs but decidedly more menial positions like warehouse manager and diesel technician and manager of maintenance. In the first months of 2014, some seemingly more lucrative jobs have been announced for New Mexico, like hybrid engineer and mission engineer and astronaut instructor. But for every one job based at the New Mexico spaceport, there are still another five announced for Mojave.
In the absence of attracting a significant portion of the burgeoning commercial space industry, Spaceport America has been forced more and more to rely on the promise of its anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic, and that company’s most immediate goal of providing an “unforgettable adventure” and “luxury life experience” for its ticket holders. But if the murmurings of boondoggle slowly arose over a decade as none of the high-quality jobs materialized to transform the economy, they have reached a crescendo as some New Mexicans realize that after all this time it may only be the 1 percenters who benefit from the state’s investment.
“What you have is one of the poorest states in the country and the taxpayers in this state subsidizing the business of a billionaire for the benefit of multimillionaires,” says Gessing.
Whitesides, the current Virgin Galactic CEO, often fields these kinds of questions. This one was fired at him in November at an Association of Science Writers meeting in Gainesville, Fla.: “With all the problems on Earth, why are we creating amusement park rides in space for rich people?” Whitesides responded by pointing out that Galactic is a privately funded company. “You have a right to talk about your tax dollars,” he said. “But these aren’t your tax dollars.” Galactic is owned in part by Branson and in part by Aabar Investments, a company controlled by the government of Abu Dhabi. But Spaceport America is, of course, owned by New Mexico and its taxpayers.
Galactic’s response to questions about the greater relevance of its venture, beyond just good times for rich folks, increasingly plays up the possibility of intercontinental point-to-point travel via sub-orbital spaceship. It says these early space tourism jaunts are a kind of stopgap on the way to revolutionizing world travel. The idea is that you endured rich pricks lugging around brick cell phones in the ’80s and ’90s so you could have an iPhone in your pocket today. And now you should allow the rich their space tourism so that tomorrow (maybe 15 or 20 years by Galactic’s estimate) you can travel across the world from London to Sydney in two hours or from Dubai to Vancouver in an hour and a half.
Superfast intercontinental travel seems to have been in the Galactic mind since the very beginning. As early as an October 2003 interview with Charlie Rose, you can hear Branson bemoaning the retirement of the Concorde supersonic airplanes and the inability of his Virgin Atlantic airline to purchase and continue operating those planes. Between the lines you see him formulating some kind of plan to replace the Concorde. Mostly he lashes out at his airline nemesis, British Airways, and scolds the British government for completely subsidizing the building of the Concorde airplanes without ensuring that it would benefit all the people of Britain: “As far as the British public is concerned, we, the British public, paid for the Concorde and not British Airways.”
Now the tables have turned and the members of New Mexico’s public are the ones with their money on the line for Branson. I asked Mark Butler, the Virgin Galactic manager in charge of operations at Spaceport America, if the company would continue to use the New Mexico spaceport should its business model shift toward intercontinental travel. He responded by email, “It is too early to say.”
That is undoubtedly true. But as Gessing points out, it is hard to imagine international travelers ever heading out to the remote Jornada del Muerto desert before rocketing off to Paris for dinner. And anyway, Galactic’s SpaceshipTwo doesn’t rocket off until 50,000 feet. Until then it’s strapped to WhiteKnightTwo, which operates much like any other airplane. Many runways at many airports in the world, then, could conceivably be retrofitted for the flights.
Even if Galactic’s business model does not shift toward intercontinental travel anytime soon, it’s currently in the process of building a spaceport in Abu Dhabi, this time with its own money and the money of the Abu Dhabi-controlled company that owns almost half of Virgin Galactic. Galactic is tight-lipped about the project, and despite repeated questions, I could get no one in the company to confirm anything other than the fact that the project was underway and it is expected to be completed in the next few years. But presumably, the oil-rich Galactic investors in Abu Dhabi will spare no expense to create a luxury life experience for their ticket holders that far surpasses anything the New Mexico taxpayers can afford. And this brings up all sorts of visions of Spaceport America 10 or 15 years down the line, the creosote and cacti taking over again, just as abandoned as it was when I first visited.
There is one group of people who can be the saviors of Spaceport America, if and when they show up. Christine Anderson, the current director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, calls them by this oxymoronic name: Terrestrial Space Tourists. She tells me the hope is to have a full 50% of spaceport revenue come from these old-fashioned tourists, not the few who can afford a ticket on SpaceShipTwo, but the many people like you and me who are expected to show up and gawk without ever leaving the Earth.
“I think any commercial spaceport that wants to be self-sufficient needs to have a second source of revenue coming in,” she says. “In our case, it is tourism. For Mojave [Air and Space Port], it is windmills. Just like most airports do not get all their money from airplane traffic; they get it from concessions.”
There is plenty of precedent for this. During the moonshot, a launch from Cape Canaveral, like that of the Saturn V rocket and Apollo 11 shuttle on July 16, 1969, drew hundreds of thousands of people from all over the country to beaches and bridges and islands for miles in every direction. But that was a free-for-all picnic situation where the pilgrimage had a distinctly patriotic feel and everyone was at least guaranteed the fireworks show of a 36-story behemoth of engineering blasting off with a force equivalent to 1 million pounds of TNT. Spaceport America is isolated and can’t offer such a spectacle. And Galactic’s technology isn’t 1 million pounds of TNT fireworks show — SpaceShipTwo ignites its rocket at 50,000 feet, so any observers on the ground will only be watching WhiteKnightTwo take off horizontally, much like any other plane.
So Christine Anderson has been hunting for a $21 million loan to help make the place more enticing to the much-needed Terrestrial Space Tourists. “Several years ago we had a company called IDEAS from Florida help us plan that whole visitor experience,” she says. “Many of the company employees are former Disney Imagineers. We’ll have a 3D theater on site and we’ll have a restaurant and we’ll have a little observation deck that you can walk out to and watch as the spaceships take off and land.”
Anderson wanted to have all of this ready so that its opening coincided with the first flights of Virgin Galactic, which she hopes will begin later this year and draw about 200,000 people annually. That number of expected Terrestrial Space Tourists has been consistently revised downward over the last decade as the spaceship launch delays have piled up and reality has set in. Also likely to cut into this number is the fact that for the time being, none of this visitor experience will actually be built; Anderson recently shelved the ambitious plans in order to save money in the wake of increasing boondoggle talk. For the foreseeable future, the relatively small public gallery of The Gateway to Space will be the only area for visitors who have not paid for a ticket.
Despite New Mexico being at the end of a decade-long limb for Galactic, the company has no specific plans to help with the Terrestrial Space Tourism effort in New Mexico. Mark Butler, the Galactic manager at Spaceport America, explains via email, “The primary attraction of this tourism program is expected to be Virgin Galactic operational spaceflights, so that is what our primary contribution will be.” Its focus is largely on that other group, the Rich Space Tourists.
One thing Terrestrial Space Tourists can still look forward to is a welcome center in Truth or Consequences. This building is slated for construction on land the New Mexico Spaceport Authority has already purchased on the outskirts of town, situated conveniently between a Walmart and a Holiday Inn. This is where bus rides to the spaceport will originate. “But we’re also working on the mobile theater,” Anderson says. “You won’t just be sitting on a bus for 45 minutes; you’re going to be in a digital experience learning about space and New Mexico.”
When I’d taken the bus to the spaceport in summer 2013, there was no digital experience. I took notes on my iPad while our tour guide explained to us that we were getting a sneak peek at the future. His own notes were in a bulky three-ring binder — the standard tour guide technology for the last 70 years. Slipped into one of the wrinkled plastic sheaths was an old photocopy of the famous “Earthrise” photo from the 1968 mission of Apollo 8 in which Earth floats in the dark distance of space like a little blue marble swirled all over with white clouds. It’s been called one of the most important photographs ever taken because it showed people on Earth a new global perspective. Nobody ever mentions that a full half of the Earth isn’t visible in the photo, lost in shadow so that the little blue marble appears hacked in half.
When we talk about space tourism, particularly the sub-orbital kind that Virgin Galactic plans to conduct from Spaceport America, we’re talking a lot about that blue marble — the view we can get of ourselves from way up there. And this is how our spaceport out in the Jornada del Muerto begins to take on all sorts of spiritual dimensions.
The Overview Effect is a term coined by Frank White in 1987 to describe the experience of viewing Earth from space and the effect such an experience has on the viewer forever after. David Beaver of The Overview Institute, a group spawned from White’s work, writes this about the view of Earth from space: “Nearly every astronaut has told of changes or reinforcements of attitudes, perspectives and motivations; deep effects on intellectual, emotional and even spiritual levels.”
As Richard Branson says in a November 2009 Virgin Galactic promotional video, “This will be a trip like no other. It will give those that travel with us a unique and life-changing perspective of our planet.” Some version of this claim runs throughout all Branson’s discussions of his space venture, and because of his persistent giddiness and his flowing golden locks that have faded to dirty white, there’s a sort of young Gandalf-ish wizardry about him contributing to the sense that his pitch for space tourism is mixed with more than a little bit of mysticism.
World View, another tourism company that has considered making a home at Spaceport America, plans to give people a taste of the Overview Effect via balloon ride. Its balloons carry a passenger capsule to only a third of the height of Galactic’s spaceships, about 20 miles up, but it claims tourists will see the curvature of the Earth and the twinkle-speckled black of space. The flickering piano and epiphanic strings of its promotional video’s score plays beneath slow-motion renderings and shows that despite its rides not technically getting to space, it’s selling the same spiritual experience as Galactic, though its can be had for only $75,000. Another of these balloon “space” tourism companies based in Spain even claims that its passenger experience may be superior to Galactic’s because its space capsule provides room for passengers to meditate.
Brian Binnie is one of the few who have actually experienced what Virgin Galactic is selling. In 2004 he piloted to an altitude of 69.6 miles the X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne that became the prototype for Virgin Galactic’s current vehicle, SpaceShipTwo. Binnie describes Galactic’s passenger experience this way:
“Even though you’re just, as a passenger, sitting there, you are fully engaged. Your senses are pegged. There’s a lot of vibration. There’s a lot of noise. There’s a lot of G-forces on your body. For a minute and a half you’re saturated by that. But at rocket motor shutdown it’s as though somebody throws a switch and just like that the noise and the vibrations, the shaking, the shuttering, the shrieking and the shrilling of that rocket motor all disappears. And right with it you become weightless. And weightlessness means all the tension that was there is gone. … you can drift to the nearest window and now you have this body sensation coupled in with that view. It’s otherworldly.”
David Beaver is wary of these selling points. “It appears that the Overview Effect has either become marginalized by some of the more esoteric of the astronauts’ experience, or minimized as simply thrilling or aesthetic experiences.” Beaver, it seems, wants the view to be about social and political change, which he figures can’t happen if it’s sold as either religion or entertainment or some amoral combination of the two.
He does say that ultimately we should have faith in Virgin Galactic and other commercial space companies because, like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, he believes the likelihood that we’re destroying our home planet absolutely demands that we become an interplanetary species sooner rather than later.
Perhaps most telling was a story Beaver recounted about his buddy Frank White, the original champion of the Overview Effect, who recently flew to New York to meet with Branson. When Frank asked why Galactic never talks specifically about the Overview Effect, Branson responded, “I didn’t want to encroach on your brand.” And Frank laughed and told Branson there was no way something so profound as the cosmic view of Earth should ever be reduced to such a thing. But the strategy of Galactic has largely been to use the transformative and spiritual aspects of space travel in service of its brand.
“Galactic will put the Virgin brand on the American map in a way money can’t buy,” former CEO Will Whitehorn told Wired in 2005. “Every time someone mentions space travel, they’ll mention Virgin.”
Galactic has also used the ingenious strategy of getting celebrities to publicize the brand by purchasing a ticket. Add to that announcements like Lady Gaga being scheduled to perform on a Galactic flight or a sweeping deal with NBC that will include a flagship reality show called Space Race and live coverage of the inaugural flight across all NBCUniversal networks that aims to rival Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. All of this shows how Galactic can maybe afford delays — they give them more time to build an enormous brand in an unprecedented market before ever delivering a product.
The powerhouse of that brand is what’s got many in New Mexico excited to see the flights start, to see the money and the prestige come rolling in. But it’s got just as many concerned the money and prestige, if it ever shows up, isn’t going to just roll into small southern New Mexico towns so much as steamroll through them.
“I’m leaving town soon, but by god, I’m still the mayor for a few days.”
I meet with John Mulcahy in November during his last days in office as mayor of Truth or Consequences, though he doesn’t seem to have an actual office, so we meet in a multipurpose room attached to the civic center. There’s a leak in the roof and a bucket placed pretty close to under the leak and a maintenance man occasionally popping in to size up the rise of water. The good news: The ice is finally melting and the road to the spaceport is likely to be passable. The bad news: This is not the only leak in town.
Mulcahy talks mostly about the challenges he’s faced trying to ease the town toward preparing for the tourist boom promised by the spaceport. The problems are big enough that they’ve contributed to him stepping down as mayor in favor of heading up economic development in Roswell, where there’s already an entrenched cosmic brand. The gist of the problems in Truth or Consequences, he says, is that so much of the town is in disrepair and there’s not much money.
“We’re trying real hard to fix our blight,” Mulcahy says. “We’re painting. Fixing roads. And I don’t mean spend a bunch of money. I mean get out and clean up your yard. Put the roof back on. Put the door on the front door. It’s a poor community.” Because of the cold, Mulcahy wore his cowhide work gloves to our meeting; he now twists them into and out of knots as he talks to me. “We’ve seen this coming,” he says. “It didn’t sneak up on us.”
Mulcahy says 60% of the town is on a fixed income from Social Security or welfare. Most all of the students at public schools are on a free lunch program. Because the town is largely populated by senior citizens, the Senior Meal Program at the civic center is one of the largest gatherings on any given day. While nearby Elephant Butte Lake brings in around 900,000 visitors a year, the campers and fishermen aren’t exactly rolling in with big money.
When I ask Christine Anderson how the New Mexico Spaceport Authority is working to help with economic development in Truth or Consequences, she says, “We meet with all the communities. But again, it’s their job, not ours. We share our thoughts with them and our projections with them. But ultimately its up to them.” The concern, as Mulcahy puts it, is that “a lot of players with very deep pockets” will roll into the community and transform the place into something unrecognizable, into some gold-plated playground that overshadows their unique culture.
The Virgin Galactic experience is undoubtedly, for the astronauts who purchase the tickets, a luxury experience. They will want luxury accommodations. Michael Blum, a Galactic ticket holder and former PayPal executive, recently said to a crowd in Las Cruces, “I love the Hotel Encanto, but it’s not up to the international standard that these people [Galactic astronauts and their entourages] are accustomed to.”
The Hotel Encanto is likely the swankiest hotel in all of southern New Mexico. So Blum’s remarks, while intended to urge locals toward luxury development, were also an indictment of their current way of life. For Mayor Mulcahy they were a warning sign about the dangers of deep pockets erasing the unique identity of Truth or Consequences. Even my room at the Pink Pelican Motel might not survive. It doesn’t meet Blum’s “international standard” of luxury. It’s too pink. Too crumbling adobe.
Across the street from my motel is its sister business, the Pelican Spa, one of 10 locally owned hot-spring spas in town. When I’d soaked in one, there was a nearby washing machine rumbling and a family of five laughing in the bath next door. Blum might not like it, but it seemed pretty good to me. I could dip my head under the steaming water and the rumbling of the washing machine felt something like a rocket ride, and then when I surfaced all the nearby laughter brought me back to Earth.
The hot springs flow from beneath the town at over 2 million gallons a day, pumped into baths all over downtown and even to the backyards of some houses. The geothermal waters come up at over 100 degrees, spiked by the earth with minerals including gold and silver and mercury, a brew championed for centuries by the locals as having vast healing properties. In the first half of the 20th century, Hot Springs, N.M., was a major destination for those seeking therapeutic experience, physical and spiritual, boasting as many as 50 medicinal spas for the old body-and-soul soak.
So Mulcahy’s call to “step up and say we’re gonna manage this deal” is as much about seizing economic opportunity as it is about preserving the culture that, even without the spaceport, makes the place unique. It’s a mysticism that dates all the way back to early Native American tribes who used the hot springs and surrounding area as sacred ground — neutral in war and prized for healing battle wounds and prime for talks of peace. It’s a mysticism that seems born to cradle, many centuries later, the launching point for that more spiritual notion of the Overview Effect where the blue marble becomes the only way we see ourselves, all calm and in it together.
“When we talk to people about why they want to spend the money to go up to space, we hear a lot about that view when they look back at Earth. That it is weirdly an incredibly grounding experience,” says New Mexico Tourism Secretary Monique Jacobson. “We think that’s actually what a trip to New Mexico can do for people, even if you’re not able to go to space and look down at Earth, coming here can really ground you. The culture and adventures here are so unique — how you feel when you leave and how they’re truly adventures that feed your soul.”
As part of Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration for the last three years, Jacobson has worked aggressively to rebrand the state. Her campaign is called “New Mexico True,” and the slogan she repeats several times as we talk is “adventure steeped in culture.” Indeed, much of the tourism media for New Mexico is about recreational activities alongside Native American and Hispanic culture. The True brand largely ignores the presence of the aerospace industry, suggesting maybe that aerospace is not True to New Mexico. But Jacobson thinks this can change and says she does have plans to create a Space Trail that will originate at Spaceport America and direct Terrestrial Space Tourists to related sites around the state via touchscreen kiosks.
Currently the New Mexico tourism website features nothing about Spaceport America, though there are features devoted to film locations and ghost towns and the state’s penchant for green chili cheeseburgers. The True brand is taking its time going Galactic, either because it (like everyone else) is waiting for Galactic’s first flight or because current Gov. Martinez was a bit annoyed at inheriting the old Gov’s troubled “legacy” project or because it is mindful of not letting Galactic overshadow traditional New Mexico culture. That last bit is likely the case and so then there’s a kind of tussle around Spaceport America, a battle to be the defining brand.
Even the New Mexico Spaceport Authority has gotten into the branding game in the last year, sporting a brand-new logo that looks like the Star Trek insignia dipped in the Stars and Stripes and tipped on its side. The logo is on T-shirts and hats and it looms large in the tiny Operations Center adjacent to The Gateway to Space. All three of these brands, Galactic and Spaceport America and New Mexico True, need to co-exist in order for the spaceport to succeed. The Overview Effect (the real potential for political and social change), because it is not a brand, may get lost in all that marketing. And anyway, at this point Galactic’s brand undeniably dominates. The spaceport is not just any mythological eyeball rising out of the desert. The Gateway to Space, when all lit up, is designed to resemble the Galactic logo: a blue iris modeled after Richard Branson’s own eye. From a descending SpaceShipTwo, after you’ve seen the holy curve of the Earth, you’ll get to glide quietly down into the big eye of a billionaire.
The ice finally melts off the road and runs into the dam. The bus rumbles through the canyon and over a few cattle guards, and the water in Elephant Butte Lake is rising for the first time in years. After soaking at the Pink Pelican and drinking at the Pine Knot, I’m finally headed to the spaceport again. As we steer around stray cattle in the road, Spaceport America peeks out of the red desert on the horizon. When we get close enough, it finally blinks open and the three stories of glass gleam in the sun so I have to squint when looking directly at it.
I wonder what it might be like to sit inside, just before rocketing to space. I think of Pat Hynes, director of the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium and a Galactic ticket holder, who told me of sitting in the third floor of the The Gateway to Space that will become the Astronaut Lounge, complete with a champagne bar. She was there one afternoon meeting with the U.K. spaceport
There are many ways you can classify pollution. It can be chemical, radioactive, or simply the presence of improperly disposed waste products. While some places, like Mexico City, have a very obvious problem with their heavy smog, do not be misled. The much more serene looking Lake Karachay in Russia would have you dead within an hour of sitting on its banks due to heavy radioactive contamination. So, whether the pollution is visible or not, take note because these are the 25 most polluted places on Earth.
25. La Oroya, Peru
The most recent addition to our list, the small Andean town of La Oroya has been home to a metal smelter run by Missouri based Doe Run Corporation since 1922. As a result nearly all the local children suffer from lead poisoning and respiratory complications. The Peruvian government has even been taken to court for crimes against humanity by various organizations.
24. Norilsk, Russia
This Siberian city houses an even larger smelting complex than La Oroya (it’s actually the largest in the world). Not surprisingly, the pollution here is so bad that the average life expectancy is up to 10 years less than the rest of Russia.
23. Citarum River, Indonesia
One of the world’s most polluted rivers, over 5 million people reside in its basin and rely on it as their primary water supply.
22. Kabwe, Zambia
After years of mining and processing both cadmium and lead are very common in the hills surrounding this Zambian city. In fact, the children here have been found to have 10 times the permissible EPA level of lead in their bloodstream. Moreover, the ground is barren and nothing will grow as a result of the contamination.
21. Riachuelo Basin, Argentina
Almost synonymous with pollution, the banks of the Riachuelo Basin in Argentina are lined by nearly 4,000 factories, 42 garbage dumps, and 13 slums. Definitely not a good combination when it comes to health and life expectancy.
20. Mailuu-Suu, Kyrgyzstan
As one of the largest dumps of radioactive waste in all of Asia, Mailuu-Suu is not only heavily contaminated but there are a series of unstable uranium tailing pits in the hills surrounding the city. Were these pits were to empty the result would be disastrous.
19. Sukinda, India
With upwards of a dozen mines operating in the regions without any significant level of regulation, the this Indian city has been listed as one of the most polluted in the world by the Blacksmith Institute.
18. Baku, Azerbaijan
Long an oil hub, Azerbaijan’s capital suffers from extensive pollution as a result of shipping and drilling.
17. Rondonia, Brazil
Although not polluted in the same sense as some of the other places on this list, Rondonia has been subjected to extensive deforestation in recent years and is now one of the most destroyed regions of the Amazon Rainforest.
16. Mexico City, Mexico
The fact that it is located in a volcanic crater surrounded by mountains only compounds Mexico City’s already troublesome pollution problem by trapping a thick layer of smog that hover over the city.
Whenever you cram 150 million people into an area the size of Bangladesh you are bound to have some waste management issues.c
14. Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Not only has the country as a whole been significantly destroyed by natural disasters and deforestation, but on top of all that it has on its hands a severe waste management crisis.
13. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
With a rapidly growing population, Dar es Salaam’s already strained water supply is only going to worsen. Moreover, as solid wastes continues to empty into the Msimbazi River, the prevalence of infectious disease will continue to increase.
12. Brazzaville, Congo
With an extremely contaminated water supply, the capital of the Congo has an extensive list of health and sanitation issues knocking at its door and its life expectancy is already one of the lowest in Africa.
11. Earth’s Orbit
If you have read our list on25 crazy facts about the universethen you know that the Earth is surrounded by nearly 4 million pounds of space debris. The image you see above was actually generated by NASA to show which ones are presently being tracked.
10. Yamuna River, India
As the largest tributary of the Ganges, scientists estimate that roughly 60% of Delhi’s waste gets dumped into the river. This doesn’t change the fact that almost all of its residents rely on it for water and bathing as well.
9. Tianying, China
Accounting for over half of China’s lead production, this city is home to some of the worst cases of lead poisoning in the world.
8. Sumgayit, Azerbaijan
As a result of outdated regulations, the 40 or so industrial complexes in the region have managed to created a severely toxic environment that has led to numerous health complications for residents.
7. Vapi, India
Situated at the end of a an extensive line of industrial complexes that stretch for hundreds of miles upriver, the level of mercury in Vati’s water supply is 96 times higher than anything considered safe.
6. Dzerzhinsk, Russia
Named the world’s most chemically polluted city by the Guinness Book of World Records, in recent years its death rate has overwhelmed its birth rate by more than 260%. It also has one of the lowest life expectancies in the world at roughly 45 years.
5. Lake Karachay, Russia
Used for years as nuclear dumping site by the Soviet Union, Lake Karachay has several times been declared the most polluted place on Earth. In fact, it has been said that just 1 hour of exposure here would be lethal.
4. Chernobyl, Ukraine
The site of the worst nuclear accident in history, after the Chernobyl Disaster in 1986 almost all of this town’s 14,000 residents moved away. Today it remains for the most part uninhabited due to radiation and fallout.
3. Linfen, China
It has been said that if you hang your laundry out here, it will be black before it can even dry. Although Linfen was long considered the world’s most polluted city, small improvements have been made in recent years.
2. North Pacific Gyre
You may have heard the horror stories about a trash dump twice the size of Texas floating out in the middle of the Pacific. While these are slightly exaggerated there actually is something out there known as the Pacific Trash Vortex. This is an extensive area in the North Pacific containing high levels of microscopic toxins, plastics, and chemical sludge. As a result of the rotating Pacific currents (known as gyres in oceanography) these have been “trapped” in the region. Contrary to popular myth though, it cannot be seen from space (or even from a boat for that matter) but this doesn’t change the fact that it is extremely damaging to the marine environment.
1. Ahvaz, Iran
According to the World Health Organization Ahvaz, Iran is now the most polluted city in the world, a problem that is only made worse by its constant dust storms.
In 1938, the Rummu Prison was founded at a limestone quarry in Rummu, Estonia.
Inmates at this prison camp were forced to mine limestone alongside prisoners from the Murru Soviet Prison until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Estonia regained its independence. The place was abandoned soon after, and because no one was pumping groundwater out of the quarry anymore, the ruins eventually became submerged in a new lake.
Parts of the prison can still be seen today, but some of the buildings and mining machines are completely underwater. And even though the lake bed is peppered with pieces of thick concrete, tree branches, rebar spikes, and barbed wire, people can’t help but plunge right in and explore the area.
The Rummu quarry has become a very popular spot among divers and adventure seekers.
Act like the coolest parent ever and tell your kids you’ll be serving sundaes for dinner, that way when they realize their sundae is actually mashed potatoes and gravy, it can be their dinner. Learn more here.
Every year, the Global Peace Index (product of the Institute for Economics and Peace) attempts to determine the level of peacefulness of 162 worldÂ´s largest countries. Measuring the countries’ peacefulness is a complex process based on evaluating a wide range of indicators. There are 22 indicators in total, including things like number of external and internal conflicts, relations with neighboring countries, political instability, terrorist activity, number of homicides per 100,000 people, number of jailed persons per 100,000 people, nuclear and heavy weapons capability and many more. Since 2007 when the project was launched, Iceland has always been the safest and most peaceful country in the world. In this yearÂ´s TOP 5 peaceful countries, Iceland (this yearÂ´s score 1.189) was followed by Denmark (1.193), Austria (1.200), New Zealand (1.236), and Switzerland (1.258). In these countries, as well as in those which ranked close by, you should not worry about your safety. But let us have a look at the other end of the chart. These 25 countries have been listed as the most dangerous countries in the world and definitely should not be among your vacation destinations.
25. Mexico (2.500)
www.kpbs.org Crime is among the most urgent concerns facing Mexico, as Mexican drug trafficking rings play a major role in the flow of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana between Latin America and the United States. Consequently, drug trafficking and organized crime have been a major source of violent crimes in Mexico.
24. Ethiopia (2.502)
en.alalam.ir Criminal and political violence in Ethiopia have resulted in numerous injuries and deaths. Pick-pocketing, “snatch and run” thefts from occupied vehicles, and other petty crimes are common in this country. Moreover there have also been cases of beatings, stabbings and kidnapping of expatriates and foreigners.
23. Ivory Coast (2.546)
cnn.com The country has been affected by civil wars that broke out in 2002 and 2010. The Second Ivorian Civil War escalated into full-scale military conflict between forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo, the President of Ivory Coast since 2000, and supporters of the internationally recognized president Alassane Ouattara. International organizations have reported numerous instances of human rights violations by both sides.
22. Ukraine (2.546)
www.thetimes.co.uk The unrest in Eastern and Southern Ukraine has been drawing the whole worldÂ´s attention since it started on February of 2014. Protests in Donetsk and Luhansk have escalated into an armed separatist insurgency leading the Ukrainian government to launch a military counter-offensive against the insurgents. The conflicts have already claimed thousands of casualties.
21. Chad (2.558)
www.nytimes.com Chad is one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world; most inhabitants live in poverty as subsistence herders and farmer. The country has been plagued by political violence and recurrent attempted coups. The political instability and devastating poverty have resulted in rapid criminality and corruption increase.
20. Egypt (2.571)
www.adelaidenow.com.au There have been massive continuous protests in Egypt in the recent years. In 2012, tens of thousands of protesters started to demonstrate against president Mohamed Morsi, after Morsi’s government announced a temporary constitutional declaration that in effect granted the president unlimited powers. The demonstrations, organized by Egyptian opposition organizations and individuals, mainly liberals, secularists and Christians, have resulted in violent clashes between Morsi-supporters and the anti-Morsi protesters, with dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. Furthermore, there is an ongoing Coptic Christian persecution and discrimination at multiple levels.
19. India (2.571)
theviewspaper.net Although the Indian economy is the world’s tenth-largest by nominal GDP and third-largest by purchasing power parity, the country continues to face the challenges of poverty, corruption, malnutrition, inadequate public healthcare, and terrorism. Criminality is also a significant problem in India with crimes against women, domestic violence, illegal drug trade, arms trafficking and poaching being among the most common violations.
18. Guinea – Bissau (2.591)
www.peter-doerrie.de Guinea-Bissau has a history of political instability since independence in 1974, and no elected president has successfully served a full five-year term. Except for instable political situation and considerable poverty, the country also suffers from high crime. Violent crimes such as murders and human trafficking are among the most common criminal acts.
17. Lebanon (2.620)
thevelvetrocket.com Fighting from the Syrian Civil War has spilled over into Lebanon as Lebanese opponents and supporters of the Syrian government have travelled to Syria to fight and attack each other on Lebanese soil. Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims mostly supporting the rebels in Syria, while Shi’ites have largely supported Syrian president Assad. Killings, unrest, and kidnappings of foreign citizens across Lebanon is a common occurrence.
16. Yemen (2.629)
tundratabloids.com In the past, Yemen underwent 11 civil wars and social unrest and riots are common in the country even today. In 2011, a series of street protests began against poverty, unemployment, corruption and against then President Saleh. The government and its security forces, often considered to suffer from rampant corruption, have been responsible for torture, inhumane treatment, and extrajudicial executions. Freedom of speech, the press, and religion are all restricted, Homosexuality is illegal, punishable by death.
15. Zimbabwe (2.662)
development.thinkaboutit.eu Crime is a serious problem in Zimbabwe, and is driven by the country’s deteriorating economy. Although the majority of crimes in Zimbabwe are non-violent, perpetrators are generally armed with weapons, which can include firearms. A number of American visitors have been assaulted or robbed while walking in the town of Victoria Falls, especially after dark. Another popular crime committed in Zimbabwe is the “smash and grab,” in which thieves break the windows of cars stopped at intersections and take items from inside the car.
14. Israel (2.689)
www.elonpendulum.com Although Israel is a highly developed country with the highest standard of living in the Middle East, it is far from a place you would want to live in. The main reason of the safety instability is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is an ongoing struggle between Israelis and Palestinians that began in the mid-20th century and lasts till present. Recently, the fights that are fought mainly in the Gaza region, have escalated again.
13. Colombia (2.701)
www.pri.org Colombia, in common with many Latin American nations, evolved as a highly segregated society, split between the traditionally rich families of Spanish descent and the vast majority of poor Colombians, many of whom are of mixed race. As a result, various armed groups emerged that have been involved in drug-trafficking, murders, kidnapping and other crimes.
12. Nigeria (2.710)
www.nigeriaintel.com Despite its vast government revenue from the mining of petroleum, Nigeria is faced by a number of societal issues. Nigeria’s human rights record remains extremely poor and government officials at all levels continue to be incredibly corrupt. Rape, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners, detainees and suspects are common. Furthermore, human trafficking; societal violence and vigilante killings; child labor, child abuse and child sexual exploitation; female genital mutilation, domestic violence; discrimination based on sex, ethnicity, region and religion are all rampant within this country.
11. Russia (3.039)
cnn.com A considerably high crime rate is probably the reason why Russia is among the worldÂ´s most dangerous countries. The crime in Russia include drug trafficking, money laundering, human trafficking, extortion, murder for hire, fraud and more. Many criminal operations engage in corruption, black marketeering, terrorism and abduction. In 2011, Russia was rated among the leaders in homicide by the United Nations.
10. North Korea (3.071)
time.com North Korea is widely accused of having one of the worst human rights records in the world. The population is strictly managed by the state and all aspects of daily life are subordinated to party and state planning. Amnesty International also reports of severe restrictions on the freedom of association, expression and movement, arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment resulting in death, and executions.
9. Pakistan (3.107)
www.boston.com The post-independence history of Pakistan has been characterized by periods of military rule, political instability and conflicts with neighboring India. The country continues to face challenging problems, including overpopulation, terrorism, poverty, illiteracy, corruption and it ranks among the countries with the most income inequality.
8. Democratic Republic of Congo (3.213)
www.dailymail.co.uk The country is extremely rich in natural resources but political instability, a lack of infrastructure and a culture of corruption have historically limited development, extraction and exploitation efforts. The Congolese Civil Wars, beginning in 1996, devastated the country. They ultimately involved nine African nations, multiple groups of UN peacekeepers and twenty armed groups. The wars resulted in the deaths of 5.4 million people since 1998 with more than 90% of those deaths resulting from malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition, aggravated by displaced, unsanitary and over-crowded living conditions.
7. Central African Republic (3.331)
www.theguardian.com After gaining independence from France in 1960, the Central African Republic was ruled by a series of autocratic leaders. The first multi-party democratic elections were held in 1993 when Ange-Felix Patasse was elected the president. The peaceful period did not last long though – in 2004, The Central African Republic Bush War began. Despite a peace treaty in 2007 and another in 2011, fighting broke out between government, Muslim, and Christian factions in December 2012, leading to ethnic and religious cleansing and massive population displacement in 2013 and 2014.
6. Sudan (3.362)
www.ibtimes.com Sudan suffers from several challenges. For much of Sudan’s history, the nation has suffered from rampant ethnic strife and has been plagued by internal conflicts including two civil wars and the War in the Darfur region. Sudan suffers from poor human rights most particularly dealing with the issues of ethnic cleansing and slavery in the nation. The Sudanese legal system is based on stringent Islamic law.
5. Somalia (3.368)
eastafrican.userboard.net The Somali Civil War is an ongoing conflict that started in 1991 and lasts up to present. It grew out of resistance to the Siad Barre regime during the 1980s but in the course of time, many different factions, armed rebel groups and clan-based armed organizations have joined the conflict, competing for influence in the country. The war has claimed hundreds of thousands casualties so far.
4. Iraq (3.377)
www.stripes.com Iraq has been affected by the Iraq War that lasted almost 9 years. It officially ended in December 2011 but the country has been threshing about conflicts up to present. Currently, the main problem in Iraq is the Islamic State that keeps expanding and taking over large areas of the country’s north including the provincial capitals of Mosul or Tikrit.
3. South Sudan (3.397)
www.newssword.com Since July 2011, when South Sudan became an independent state, the country has suffered from internal conflicts. The ethnic violence began as part of the Sudanese nomadic conflicts fought between rival nomadic tribes. They have resulted in a large number of casualties and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
2. Afghanistan (3.416)
pakarmedforces.com The War in Afghanistan started in 2001 and lasts till present. It refers to the intervention by NATO and allied forces in the ongoing Afghan civil war. The war followed the September 11 attacks, and its public aims were to dismantle al-Qaeda and denying it a safe basis of operation in Afghanistan by removing the Taliban from power. As of 2013, tens of thousands of people had been killed in the war.
1. Syria (3.650)
www.thesleuthjournal.com The main reason why Syria ranked as the worldÂ´s most dangerous country is the Syrian Civil war. This ongoing armed conflict began in the early spring of 2011 with nationwide protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s government, whose forces responded with violent crackdowns. The conflict gradually morphed from popular protests to an armed rebellion after months of military sieges. The armed opposition consists of various groups that were formed during the course of the conflict, including the Free Syrian Army or the Islamic Front. Estimates of deaths in the conflict vary widely, ranging from around 110,000 up to almost 200,000. It’s truly sad to see some of the stuff that goes on in the world’s most dangerous countries. Our hope is that one day, maybe these countries can be safe and prosperous places.
In October of 2010, a paper came out in the Journal of Computational Science that claimed to be able to predict the stock market with Twitter. There was more to it than that, of course, but the bottom line was a claim to 87% accuracy in predicting day-to-day movement in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, with nothing more than an endless sea of tweets. If true, it was a billion dollar finding (trillion? gajillion?), enough to launch a whole generation of hedge funds, all courtesy of an Illinois computer scientist named Johan Bollen.
The results have been less than stellar.
The first fund to bet big on Bollen’s findings was Derwent Capital’s so-called “Twitter Fund,” arriving in July of last year. In their first month, they beat the market and enjoyed no small amount of buzz. Less than a year later, they quietly shut down, amid persistent rumors of how much they used Bollen’s research at all. The 87% figure shows up on lots of mildly sketchy finance sites, but if anyone could actually live up to it, they’d be a billionaire in a matter of days — and, more importantly, you’d be able to feel the financial shockwaves a mile off. Bollen’s Guidewave Consulting business is still alive and well — confidentiality agreements prohibit them from revealing who their clients are, or how many remain — but so far, no one’s making money off Twitter except Twitter.
This is what a Guidewave projection looks like, assembled from the Twitter API and an algorithm that ties certain words to certain sentiments. In this case, it’s a map of how calm Twitter was feeling in the last week of May, as the market started to crater. You might even say it leads the cratering a little bit, since the biggest drop came on May 31st — but that’s exactly where one gets into trouble. Bollen insists, it’s not a prediction machine. Instead, he told me, “What you have is a big information-processing device that uses people as very complicated, very sophisticated sensors of real world conditions.”
This isn’t how sentiment analysis usually works. The more conventional tactics approach the market one stock at a time, like most financial analysis. They deal in specific information like earnings reports or customer sentiment. How much of an impression did the latest jobs report make? Are people excited about a smaller iPad, or already rolling their eyes? These questions have real market consequences, and if Twitter can tip you off to an underwhelming feeling around an upcoming product launch or earnings report, that can be worth a lot of money.
Chris Malloy of the Harvard Business School specializes in the more specific kind of sentiment mining, which has already gained a following among more forward-thinking hedge funds. But when I asked Malloy about searching for broader sentiments, unhinged from particular stocks, he was less optimistic. “I can’t imagine how a bunch of people being happy in the morning can help you predict the stock market.”
Bollen disagrees: “If you have 100 million people, and they’re 2% happier than they were yesterday, that’s of tremendous interest.” It just depends on what you’re looking for.
The idea of tracking market moods has been hovering around the edges of economics for centuries, so it’s hard to dismiss entirely. As far back as John Maynard Keynes, economists have made reference to the “animal spirits” of the market, decisions based on, “spontaneous optimism rather than mathematical expectations,” as Keynes put it. At best, it boils down to something like the Consumer Confidence Index — not exactly a stock predictor, but the kind of helpful reference point Bollen is hoping to provide. At worst, it becomes an analytic bogeyman, a catchall explanation for otherwise inexplicable twists of the market. If you stare at the S&P sparkline for long enough, it’s hard not to think of it as a living, emotional entity.
I’ve felt the same sense of volatility on Twitter, and I suspect I’m not alone. A full enough feed will swing from outrage to absurd humor to resigned sadness in a matter of seconds, and it’s very tempting to read into why. As the Supreme Court’s ACA ruling broke, my feed was moving too fast to read, and the frantic energy wasn’t limited to my Tweetdeck. Suddenly, I was tapped into what thousands of people were feeling on a moment-to-moment basis. Surely that’s worth something, right?
Maybe, maybe not. There are all kinds of selective sampling bias in play, both from the rarefied sample of Twitter users and the kind of sentiments that fit into a 140 characters. Bollen’s still plugging away, but anyone looking to cash in had better be ready to wait a few decades. “We’re still establishing that these effects actually exist,” Bollen put it. “We’re not really modeling how this happens, we’re trying to measure whether it’s happening it all.”
Your DNA can reveal more about your body — and what the future has in store for it — than a stethoscope and a tongue depressor ever could.
Thanks to the Human Genome Project, which identified all the genes in the human DNA, scientists better understand how our biological makeup affects our health. This milestone kick-started the commercialization of DNA sequencing, which refers to determining the exact order of the bases in a strand of DNA. Five years from now, the process may be as simple as picking up a kit at your local pharmacy, similar to a pregnancy test.
“It’s just a question of time,” says Daniel MacArthur, a genomics researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Right now it’s just way too expensive. But that will change fast.”
When commercialization eventually drives down the price, DNA sequencing could even be a project your kids do in science class, MacArthur suggests.
DNA sequencing may sound like a cool plot line from a sci-fi thriller, but the question really is, what’s in it for you?
Your DNA, in Recreational Mode
One of the most common uses for DNA sequencing today is to determine predispositions for genetic diseases or complications. But there are also more “recreational” aspects of genomics.
Genetic testing can be used to track down distant members of your family tree by looking for shared segments of DNA. Additionally, you can learn more about your ancestry by looking for genetic clues to where your deeper ancestors lived. For instance, you may be able to determine whether you have any detectable Native American ancestry.
23andMe, a personal genome service, sells a DNA Spit Kit — users simply spit in a tube and send it to a lab for testing. For $299, researchers will analyze your DNA for information about your ancestry and health. From there, you can access a database of more than 200 health and trait reports or sift through the world’s largest DNA database to find connections you never knew.
When it comes to your health, DNA sequencing can tell you things beyond disease susceptibility — like whether you sneeze in sunlight, or whether you can really smell asparagus in your urine. Is that information really helpful in the long run? Maybe not. Nonetheless, we’re continually fascinated by our human ticks.
“For some people, these non-medical aspects end up proving much more interesting than their disease predictions,” says MacArthur. “But this isn’t just for fun — for people who already have serious diseases, DNA sequencing can profoundly change their diagnosis and treatment.”
A Cure for Rare Diseases? Thanks, Crowdfunding
Four-year-old Maya suffers from global developmental delays. Despite visits to several physicians, her condition remained a mystery for years. Doctors knew it was genetic, but no tests turned up a concrete explanation.
Last spring, Maya connected with Rare Genomics Institute (RGI), a service that helps families design research studies and raises money online via a Kickstarter-like crowdfunding platform to pay for DNA sequencing for children with rare genetic disorders.
Maya’s fundraising took just six hours.
One year and a lengthy research process later, researchers called RGI with a potential breakthrough: They found a new gene error.
“Maya is the first person in history with an error in this gene,” says RGI founder Jimmy Lin. “So, you could say we may have identified a new disease through this … and we’re now able to take next steps.”
DNA sequencing has already revolutionized the way we diagnose and treat diseases like cancer. However, it’s especially useful for rare diseases that may hinge on just a few individuals.
But while the process could potentially open the door to a cure for a rare disease, this is where DNA sequencing falls into a financial gap — there are no advocacy groups for unknown diseases. Additionally, health insurance usually won’t pick up the tab for this type of service.
“Researchers don’t tend to study individual people,” says Lin, who started RGI to fill that void into which children with rare diseases fall. “Often, these children present anatomical problems, like displaced hearts,” Lin explains. “Or delays in development, like talking.”
Although the company is just a little older than one year, it already has about 20 cases on deck. On average, each case costs $7,500, all of which is raised through crowdfunding.
Can Insurance Companies Use Your DNA Against You?
DNA sequencing doesn’t come without its share of fine print.
“There are no fundamental barriers to cheap, widely available DNA sequencing,” MacArthur says. “It’s just a question of how society will adapt to that technology. That, I think, is much less clear. People tend to get panicky about invasion of genetic privacy.”
It’s hard to say how America’s healthcare system will be structured 10 years from now. But if it’s similar to how it functions today, skyrocketing premiums could be a real issue when it comes to standardizing genetic testing.
Insurance companies may be able to use your genetic information when assessing certain parts of your coverage. In 2008, Congress passed a law that should, theoretically, protect us from such manhandling. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) prohibits insurance companies from using genetic information to determine coverage costs.
But there are a lot of holes. For example, GINA doesn’t cover life insurance or long-term care. In cases like these, genetic information could be used to calculate costs or type of coverage available to that individual.
“The key is that there has to be a safety net for people with these serious genetic diseases,” says MacArthur.
On the other hand, DNA sequencing could swing in a positive direction — for a healthy person, that is. A genetics report free of disease risk could mean coverage cost cuts, similar to how an auto insurance company might give a discount to a safe driver.
Expect DNA sequencing to be a routine procedure in hospitals in 5 to 10 years. In the short term, this process will be used to test and diagnose symptoms that the patient is already experiencing. But if researchers meet their goals, DNA sequencing may be as routine as a checkup in your family doctor’s office.
4 Ways to Connect With Your DNA
1. Discovery Kids DNA Explorer Kit
Genomics researcher Daniel MacArthur says that, in 10 years, DNA sequencing will be common enough that kids will tackle it for science projects.
Until then, Discovery Kids’s DNA Explorer is a tangible way people 10 and up to learn about DNA. Young scientists can use it to extract and map real deoxyribonucleic acid from their chosen specimens (the kit comes with dried peas because DNA is easy to extract, but any type of food will work).
The whole process takes just a few hours. Now that’s fast science!
“It is genuinely disruptive, in the startup sense,” says MacArthur. The science behind scaling down this process into the small USB has taken nearly two decades. “It’s potentially the most exciting tech we have seen in a long time,” MacArthur adds.
Besides its convenient size and portability, the disposable device is also affordable. Oxford Nanopore is set to release the product later this year.
3. 23andMe DNA Spit Kit
Ever wondered if any of your ancestors were Native American? Or perhaps your grandparents mentioned family in Ireland.
23andMe’s DNA Spit Kit can pinpoint just where your heritage began. All it takes is — you guessed it — spit. Once your kit is registered, simply send in your sample, and a lab will analyze your DNA in just 2-3 weeks.
But discovering more branches of your family tree touches only the beginning. Find out if you’re lactose intolerant, have an “athletic” gene or simply determine what foods will really sing on your taste buds.
4. Family Tree DNA
If you’d simply like to focus your DNA results on ancestry alone, try Family Tree DNA, a more affordable version of 23andMe’s kit. The service offers three types of tests, all of which fall within the same price range.
For males, the lowest-cost option covers Y-DNA testing, which is directly connected with your paternal line. Similarly, the mid-range mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) test analyzes your direct maternal line, available for both genders. Finally, at $199, the most expensive option uses autosomal DNA (inherited from both mother and father, four grandparents and eight great-grandparents) to find relatives across all lines. This is best choice if you’re looking to find out more about your ethnic background.
Let it be said from the start that this list is neither comprehensive nor an attempt to rank the “greatest” aliens. I truly feel the odds are highly in favor of there being more alien races in the universe than science fiction could possibly imagine (and we haven’t met a single one of them yet). But the field has certainly given it the old college try in imagining what they might be like. As such, this list is nothing more or less than some of the aliens I have enjoyed getting to know in the pages of books. Some are foes, some are friends, some are neither or misunderstood decent-folk. In an effort to limit the possibilities at least somewhat, the following criteria apply: Only races found in “books” are included (no short stories or visual media). The book must be good enough to read regardless of how cool the aliens are. The aliens must be fleshed out to where you would know what to expect if suddenly meeting them. They must be unique and memorable. Here then, are a few I think I “know” that are in no particular order.
Hard for humans to pronounce, with a deep glottal stop after the first “A”, the Aalaag conquered Earth easily to set the stage for Gordon R. Dickson’s 1987 novel, Way of the Pilgrim. Considered within their own ethos, the Aalaag are extremely just masters — mistreatment of their human “cattle” by one of their kind is a serious offense. But they demand obedience and a rigid code of conduct that rankles the human spirit. Actually, the Aalaag are a conquered race themselves, fleeing from some unnamed but awesomely powerful enemy that took their home worlds. They are in essence warriors, tall and proud, each with a collection of personal arms and possessing a Spartan outlook on their condition. Every single Aalaag views duty as the highest virtue, and all duty is directed towards one day regaining their lost worlds. The races they themselves conquer are used to exploit resources in support of this ultimate goal. Our hero is Shane Evert, a gifted linguist who leads a translator-courier corp in the service of the alien leader, First Captain Lyt Ahn. The book title refers to the use of a Pilgrim as a universal motif of the human condition, which becomes a symbol for the nascent resistance movement. Absorbing, warmly human — at times captivating — the novel is Dickson at his finest, and that is a high level of writing indeed.
Forget about the absolutely wretched John Travolta movie. Forget about whatever you think of L. Ron Hubbard as the founder of Scientology. Just read his mammoth (1,066 paperback pages) 1982 novel Battlefield Earth. It is rollicking space opera the way space opera is supposed to be. The Psychlos don’t just conquer planets. They don’t just conquer galaxies. They conquer universes. Only they have the secret to instantaneous teleportation. And one of their biggest operations is the Intergalactic Mining Company, which knocks natives back to the Stone Age and then systematically strips their planet of all available ore, almost down to the very core. Oh, and the Psychlos find cruelty to be “delicious.” The crooked — even by their standards — Security Head of Earth is named Terl and he is scheming to get rich by “training” native humans to do some illegal mining for him. Superb characterization of both aliens and humans in a story that moves so briskly, you’ll forget you are reading. A tip of the hat must be made to the Selachees, another alien race in the book that is unique and crucial to the outcome.
Alan Dean Foster has penned a number of works set in the Human-Thranx (Humanx) Commonwealth, but most deal with well-known characters such as Flinx and Pip, with the Thranx being in the background if appearing at all. One novel, however, thoroughly explored the culture of the Thranx while detailing how humans came to partner with them. That would be 1982′s Nor Crystal Tears, which in large part is written from the Thranx viewpoint. Everything just seems to fit in this novel — by the end of it, you are so much pulling for the insectoid Thranx to form an alliance with humans that you would immediately recognize any instance of Foster not treating a Thranx as a Thranx (even though there is plenty of room for individualism within the species). But he handles the race perfectly. And I happen to really like praying mantises.
Specifically, the Martians in Fredric Brown’s 1955 novel Martians, Go Home. They literally are little green men, but what they truly are — first, foremost, and always — are assholes. Being an asshole seems to be their major occupation. They invade Earth by the millions literally overnight, speaking English with something like a Brooklyn accent, and proceed to make utter nuisances of themselves. With disastrous, even fatal, results. They can teleport anywhere, and although they can’t be touched, they are substantial enough to where you can’t see through them — auto and plane crashes by the thousands. They like nothing better than to tell you who your wife is sleeping with, give national defense secrets to other countries, comment of human shortcomings — anything to be as big a pain in the ass as possible. This book is almost universally considered a classic of the genre, and I haven’t met anyone who read it and didn’t like it.
Speaker for the Dead is Orson Scott Card’s 1986 sequel to his justifiably world-famous novel Ender’s Game (a deserved entry on JFrater’s list of science fiction for people who don’t read science fiction). Both novels won both the Hugo and Nebula awards — the first time anyone has accomplished such a back-to-back feat. Speaker is much different in tone, backdrop and subject material, even though Ender is still the major character. Almost certainly many people will disagree with listing pequinos as a classic alien race — arguing instead for the Buggers or even Jane — but it is the rich depiction of the “piggy” society that gets the nod here. Especially because, much to Ender’s chagrin, once again the difficulties of interspecies communication are at the forefront as humans attempt (in vain) to understand the pequinos without disrupting their natural development. Very touching in places, and a must for any sci-fi reader interested in comparative religion. Before that scares you off, I am most decidedly NOT interested in such, but loved the book anyway. If nothing else, the concepts of framling (humans from other planets), ramen (non-humans whom we communicate with as though they were human), and varelse (non-humans with whom no communication is possible, such as intelligent viruses) should be remembered at the inevitable time when we come into contact with interstellar beings.
Widely included in university science fiction courses everywhere, Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 classic Childhood’s End depicts yet another conqueror of Earth — but a benign one, in many ways. The Overlords make life better for everyone and end many of our persistent woes, all while sitting aloof in their gigantic starships positioned over major cities. Mankind adapts, as is his nature. But the Overlords will not reveal themselves for fifty years and the reason why incorporates the Jungian concept of racial memory. No spoiler coming, but this inclusion is probably why so many professors love to teach the novel. Anyway, of course there is a secret to why the Overlords are doing what they do. What happens when that is revealed might best be described as “poignant.”
Larry Niven didn’t need the money but Jerry Pournelle did. Doesn’t really matter, because both guys are science fiction authors whether they’re eating Hamburger Helper or fillet mignon. Together they are one of the most successful collaborations the field has ever seen. 1985′s Footfall is an excellent example. People who don’t read science fiction were reading Niven/Pournelle novels in college during the 80′s while waiting for the next Heinlein to come out. Anyway, anyone who has read the book has to think of the Fithp as elephants. As humans are a culture of individuals, as ants are a colony culture, the Fithp are a herd culture. Excellent treatment of that basic premise — and being herd creatures, they do not understand the concept of diplomatic compromise… you either dominate or you submit. In particular, the internal politics of an intelligent herd engaged in difficult conquest are handled with admirable skill.
Ok. So a guy publishes a novelette and it wins the Nebula — mere months after the guy publically denounces the awards themselves! Then it wins the Hugo. Along with the John W. Campbell award because, after all, the guy is new. So he’s the first person ever to win all three of those awards in one year. Big deal? Sort of. Along came Hollywood and a somewhat underrated film starring Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett, Jr. (Gossett got a Best Actor nomination, even though the film wasn’t really a hit.) Suddenly, Barry B. Longyear is a major player in science fiction as a result of 1979′s Enemy Mine. Drac and humans are at war. One human fighter pilot and one alien fighter pilot are marooned on a world where existence is difficult to say the least. They are forced to pool resources just to stay alive. Problem is, the Dracs are hermaphrodites and Jeriba doesn’t need a partner to reproduce. Spoiler alert next sentence: An untimely death and our human is forced to raise the alien progeny as his own. Both the book and the movie are essentially the story of one human and one alien interacting, with a beginning and an ending tacked onto either end. If you’re in the right frame of mind, you’ll cry. You will absolutely know the Drac, especially if you have both seen the movie and read the book. The Drac are included here because they fit the criteria; I own many Longyear books mainly as a result of the sheer pathos in Enemy Mine, but find the majority of his stuff barely readable.
H. Beam Piper solidified his place in science fiction history with the publication of 1962′s Little Fuzzy. The adjectives most used in reviews of this book might well be “delightful” and “charming” and one can’t blame the reviewers for that. Cute and cuddly, the Fuzzies are. But the novel explores a rather important theme: how do we define sapience? Is this lifeform just a critter, over which we can claim dominion, or a thinking creature in its own right, in which case exploitation — and even murder — rears its ugly head? Sequels followed, not always written by the originator — none are as enjoyable as the original.
It’s problematical whether Keith Laumer is best known for his Bolo series of works or what he has done with his James Bond-ish assistant diplomat character Jame Retief. Probably the latter. Lots of stories and novels over several decades. Regardless, these tongue-in-cheek tales of derring-do and human ingenuity in the face of human diplomatic incompetence have sold quite well for many years. In most of them, there is an insidious plot behind whatever the current weird aliens are doing that is being masterminded by the Groaci. No slouches at the diplomatic bargaining table, the Groaci are nonetheless almost incapable of dealing squarely. The books are pun-filled and light-hearted, but the Groaci are badass unless put on a leash. Almost not included on the list, as they are rather a two-dimensional race. Fun, nonetheless.
Poul Anderson is undoubtedly one of the deans of American science fiction — his word count alone contains way too many commas. Many of those words were as a result of cranking out short story after short story for the magazines back in the day. He had sort of a “Future History” — a term associated with Robert A. Heinlein which see, — but Anderson’s future history was rather a disjointed one. Many of his stories were set in the backdrop of the so-called “Polesotechic League” which spanned 4,000 years of human interstellar exploration. The League is a thinly-veiled (if veiled at all) allegory of 19th-century robber-baron capitalism. So what about the Ythri? 1978′s The Earth Book Of Stormgate violates a criterion: it’s a story collection, not a novel. But Hloch of the Stormgate Choth introduces each story as a scholar/historian. And the interwoven stories themselves, combined with Hloch’s notes, definitely give the reader a sense of Ythrian culture. The best way to include that race in this list — and they are worthy of inclusion — is via the Earth Book (although Ythrians also appear in other works by Anderson).
Hard to explain these guys without spoiling everything, but I’ll try. Well over half of Robert A. Heinlein’s 1954 “juvenile” SF novel The Star Beast has played out before the word Hroshii ever appears. But, they’re plenty powerful — and disinclined to negotiate. They’re looking for someone, and they simply will not take no for an answer. The someone they are looking for has a little trouble taking no for an answer, as well. Not truly disobedient, and with no desire to cause harm, just kind of literal-minded in following instructions and always a little hungry. “Lummox” is so a person and more than that, s/he’s a friend!
Pretty danged human for being essentially giant spiders. Canadian author Robert J. Sawyer, who is probably today’s foremost purveyor of “hard” science fiction, introduced us to this race in 2000′s Calculating God. Even though the events in the novel deal with the Forhilnors coming to Earth and interacting with a human paleontologist, it could be said that the aliens are simply bystanders… Sawyer uses that encounter to tackle really mind-blowing concepts of creation, cosmology, and why life exists at all. Nevertheless, the reader would love to have Hollus as a dinner guest and would be proud to have that [person] as a friend. Satisfies the criterion of knowing what those folks are really like. But as a digression: Take three good friends. One is a fundamentalist assured of his salvation. The second is an agnostic who feels he believes in God but doesn’t quite know what that means. The third is an atheist who looks strictly to chemical processes. Remember, they are all good friends. Calculating God is the book they should discuss around a campfire.
If you don’t know David Gerrold, you nonetheless probably know one thing he did — he wrote the Star Trek episode “The Trouble With Tribbles.” His output includes a number of short stories and novels of varying quality. But in 1983 he published A Matter For Men, volume one in what became known as “The War Against The Chtorr.” Although the “worms” are the most visible face of the Chtorr, what we have here is nothing less than the attempt of an entire biosphere to conquer Earth. Several books resulted, and happily some of the latter ones are just as good as the first. They really have to be read in order, though, as the Chtorran infestation multiplies and human reaction changes accordingly. This comes close to violating a criterion — it would be stretching it to call a Chtorran worm a “person”… even with absolutely zero speciesism. A God maybe, but not a person.
Another rather well-known race, and here’s hoping someone with a real budget will get around to making a movie of Harry Harrison’s 1984 masterpiece West of Eden. It spawned a few sequels (with the usual slight lowering of quality) and is a stunning example of meticulous alien-creation. Although, the Yilane aren’t truly aliens in one sense of the word… this is an alternate evolution of Earth story. Humans are at the hunter-gatherer stage. The Yilane are 4-foot tall, erect intelligent reptiles descended from dinosaurs. Theirs is a matriarchal society whose technology is based almost exclusively on the manipulation of the biological sciences. They literally grow plants and animals that are modified to perform such diverse functions as microscopes, boats, and living blankets. The Yilane are tropical whereas the humans are temperate. But impending climate changes push the two societies towards one another and conflict erupts. Kerrick, the human protagonist, is uniquely situated — he was captured by the Yilane at an early age and raised among them. This upbringing is the true beauty of the book: it allows the author to show the reader the awesomely rich Yilane culture without having to rely heavily on exposition. As Kerrick learns, so do we. And quite an education it happens to be, as readers end up truly knowing a completely alien culture — without any sacrifice in good storytelling whatsoever. Harrison is rather erratic in the quality of his various works — some are horrible, many are craftsman-like, a handful are quite good — but he undoubtedly triumphed with this one.
Gallery of 15 Memorable Alien Races in Science Fiction
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