This post was updated on June 14, 2018.
Depending on where you’re from, you might not know New Mexico is the birthplace of Demi Moore, Smokey Bear, and the first atomic bomb. It is also the burial place of Billy the Kid and tons of nuclear waste (at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant). Even though the hit television series Breaking Bad put the state on the map for many people, there are still a good number of U.S. citizens who don’t realize New Mexico is one of the 50 states (#47). Residents sometimes joke that they live in the lost state—the only one with USA stamped on their license plates. Regardless of the reason for this confusion, those who live in New Mexico have always known why it’s nicknamed The Land of Enchantment.
Immense blue skies (where the sun shines 360 days a year), hypnotic sunsets, and a temperate climate that makes it possible to play outside nearly every day of the year have captured many a child’s heart. Lava flows and surreal caverns, forested mountains and rocky mesas, and ancient cultures and diverse nationalities are also found in New Mexico.
Less than 2,100,000 people live in 121,589 square miles, hemmed in by Arizona (west), Colorado (north), Texas (east), and Mexico to the south. Large areas of open and undeveloped land have drawn artists and celebrities for years, as well as research and development from government and private sectors. Such secluded places make excellent hidey-holes for secrets and keep the public safe from a variety of dangerous activities.
New Mexico has only been a state since 1912 but has already helped shape the world. Here are a few ways this state is connected to science fact and fiction.
Ham the Astrochimp, the first primate launched into space (1961), was trained at Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo.
Spaceport America: “The world’s first purpose built commercial spaceport” has welcomed permanent tenants Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, UP Aerospace, EXOS Aerospace, and EnergeticX Pipeline2Space. Its FAA-licensed horizontal and vertical launch areas are located on 18,000 acres near the town of Truth or Consequences adjacent to the restricted airspace of White Sands Missile Range.
UFOs—Roswell: Filled with alien-inspired shops and attractions, Roswell is home of the International UFO Museum and Research Center. UFO sightings, Hangar 84, alien abductions —it all happened here. Read the “living history” of the July 1947 UFO crash told 50 years later by witnesses to the event now known as the Roswell Incident.
The Very Large Array (VLA): Astronomers from around the world use these giant antenna dishes to listen to the universe and observe celestial bodies. VLA has been called a scifi icon because of its recognizable features in movies. Located 50 miles west of Socorro.
White Sands Space Harbor (WSSH) was once a Space Shuttle runway, test site for rocket research, back up landing site for space shuttle missions, and primary training area for NASA’s Shuttle pilots practicing approaches and landings. Located west of Alamogordo within the White Sands Missile Range.
Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL)—Los Alamos: As part of the Manhattan Project in 1943, they designed and built the first atomic bomb in 20 months. Their basic mission now is to maintain “the safety, security, and reliability of the nation’s nuclear deterrent without the need to return to underground testing.” Bioscience, Lasers, Supercomputers, 3D Simulators.
New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (NM Tech)—Socorro: One of the top 10 engineering programs in the U.S., it’s a center of higher learning in advanced fields of science and technology. The Energetic Materials Research & Testing Center (EMRTC) has blown stuff up on “M” mountain for decades. Geology, Astronomy, Seismology.
Sandia National Laboratory (SNL)—Albuquerque: In the 1940s, Los Alamos National Laboratory moved its Z Division to Albuquerque’s Sandia Army Base where the laboratory was renamed. Most of their research focuses on enhancing national security in regards to renewable energy systems, climate and environment, robotics, defense systems, and weapons testing. Albuquerque residents still wonder about the possibilities of weapons stored in bunkers and nearby foothills.
- Z Pulsed Power Facility (also known as the Z Machine) at SNL is the largest X-ray generator in the world and is designed to test materials under conditions of extreme temperature and pressure.
Trinity Site—Alamogordo: On July 16, 1945 the world’s first nuclear explosion occurred in the New Mexico desert on what is now White Sands Missile Range. The test was code-named “Trinity” and the spot where the explosion occurred became known as the Trinity Site.
Here are a few of the more famous scifi/fantasy authors who call New Mexico home:
Daniel Abraham and James S.A. Corey (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck)
George R.R. Martin
Walter Jon Williams
Roger Zelazny (Read George R.R. Martin’s “In Memoriam: Roger Zelazny“)
♦ Movies and Television
The following science fiction movies and television series were filmed principally in New Mexico:
The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1976
Earth 2, 1994-1995, television series
The Lost Room, television mini-series, 2006
Terminator Salvation, 2009
The Book of Eli, 2010
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, 2015
Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, 2016
Independence Day: Resurgence, 2016
The Space Between Us, 2017
Shots of the state are also found in many other films including Contact (1997), Transformers (2007), Cowboys & Aliens (2011), The Avengers (2012), and The Host (2013). Visit the New Mexico Film Office for other movies and TV shows filmed here.
Bubonicon—Albuquerque: This annual Science Fiction & Fantasy Convention began in 1969 and is named for the bubonic plague that shows up in some parts of the state on occasion. To help offset the connotations of the name, they adopted a cute mascot named Perry Rhodent. Attendance for the last five years has ranged from 750-980 at each convention.
Jack Williamson Science Fiction Library—Portales: Located at Eastern New Mexico University (ENMU), the library contains more than 30,000 science fiction related items (including books, magazines, manuscripts, correspondence, and photographs) donated primarily by award-winning author and ENMU faculty member Jack Williamson.
Microsoft—Albuquerque: Bill Gates and Paul Allen first registered Micro-Soft as a business with the State of New Mexico in the mid-1970s.
New Mexico Museum of Space History—Alamogordo: Dedicated to the origins of the U.S. space exploration program. The museum includes the International Space Hall of Fame (ISHF), an air and space park, the Daisy Track, a theater/planetarium, and other exhibits.
Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)—Carlsbad: The only deep geologic repository in the United States for permanent disposal of a specific type of waste byproduct of the nation’s nuclear defense program.
You might want to check out:
- Federal Research and Development in New Mexico from Discovery and Innovation: Federal Research and Development Activities in the Fifty States, District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico
- A timeline of the history of Sandia National Laboratory
- Out of This World: New Mexico’s Contributions to Space Travel and The Complete Space Buff’s Bucket List, both by Loretta Hall