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Spaceport America opens – but space tourists will have to wait
Tuesday, 18 October 2011 15:53

With his usual flair, British billionaire Richard Branson rappelled from a balcony, shook up a big bottle of champagne and took a swig while christening the world's first built-from-scratch commercial spaceport on Monday.

Branson's Virgin Galactic will stage its commercial space tourism venture from Spaceport America in a remote patch of desert in southern New Mexico.

Branson was joined by Governor Susana Martinez, the astronaut Buzz Aldrin and scores of would-be space travellers at the terminal-hangar for the dedication. It had been nearly a year since the businessman was in New Mexico to celebrate the completion of the runway.

"The building is absolutely magnificent," he said. "It is literally out of this world, and that's what we were aiming at creating."

With the spaceport and mothership completed, the company is now finalising its rocket tests.

Branson said he hopes enough powered test flights of the spacecraft can be done by the end of 2012, so commercial suborbital flights from the spaceport can start soon after.

More than 450 people have purchased tickets to fly with Virgin Galactic. About 150 of them attended the ceremony, which included a flyover by the Virgin spacecraft WhiteKnightTwo.

The $209m (£133m) taxpayer-financed spaceport will be a launch station for people and payloads on the rocket ships being developed for the company.

With custom metal panelling and massive panes of glass, the terminal rises from the desert floor to face the nearly two-mile concrete runway.

The building will house the spacecraft, mission control and a preparation area for travellers.

It was six years ago that Virgin Galactic and New Mexico officials reached an agreement to build the facility. Officials said the completion of the terminal and hangar marks another major milestone that brings the dream of rocketing tourists into space closer to reality.

Branson had once predicted the maiden passenger flight would take off in 2007. He acknowledged people were still waiting for that day in an interview on Monday. He and his two children will be among the first to fly, and he said he wants to ensure he can bring them home safely.

"We want to be sure we've really tested the craft through and through before turning it over to the astronauts who bought tickets to go up," he said. "If it takes a bit longer, we'll take a little bit longer."

Commercial service will start up after the company gets a license from the Federal Aviation Administration. Nasa has already signed a $4.5m contract with the company for up to three chartered research flights.

Passengers tickets cost $200,000 each. The two and a half-hour flights will include about five minutes of weightlessness and views of Earth that until now only astronauts have been able to experience.

Like development of the spacecraft, construction of the 110,152 square-foot (10,233 square-metre) terminal and hangar facility has been complicated. There were delays, building code problems, contractor disputes and costly change orders.

State officials blamed the unprecedented nature of the project as well as its remote location, the lack of infrastructure and the weather.

New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NWSA) executive director, Christine Anderson, arrived at the facilty a day early to find WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo stowed in the hangar.

"This was quite a feat," she said, joking with the crowd that she was glad the spacecraft fit in the cavernous hangar.

The building was designed by UK-based Foster + Partners, along with URS Corp and New Mexico architects SMPC.

Virgin Galactic and officials with the New Mexico Spaceport Authority are touting the design as green. It uses geothermal energy; tubes running through the earthen berm surrounding part of the building help cool the interior; and natural ventilation can be used during mild seasons.


guardian.co.uk © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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