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Virgin Galactic set to open $212 million Spaceport America

Earth from space

$212 million Spaceport America

Virgin Galactic set to open $212 million Spaceport America

By James Nye and Reuters Reporter
The inaugural flight of the six-passenger SpaceShipTwo should take place this year, carrying Branson from the 12,000-foot runway to suborbital space about 65 miles from Earth.

‘As always, safety will ultimately call the shots, but right now, I’m planning to go to space in 2014!’ Branson wrote in an e-mail this week. The first of some 700 ‘astronauts,’ who have already paid $250,000 for the two-hour-plus flight and some minutes of weightlessness, should follow a month later.

After 10 years of conception and construction at the state-run, taxpayer-funded, $212-million Spaceport, the people of Truth or Consequences, population 6,500, are sensing a shift in confidence as the countdown nears.

While the economic windfall is difficult to estimate for the town that famously renamed itself after a radio quiz show in 1950, most everyone in these parts agrees the Spaceport should inject new energy into the somewhat tattered and totally quirky T or C, as it is known in local parlance.

Virgin Galactic's Spaceport

‘There might have been some doubt about how much T or C would be ready for all of this future endeavor,’ said Cydney Wilkes, who bought and renovated a motel with wife Val a few years ago and called it, aptly, Rocket Inn.

‘I think that in the last few months that shifted … that maybe we can pull up and measure up,’ she added, noting that the Virgin team is helping the hospitality industry spiffy up.

There’s a new Walmart north of town, next to where a Spaceport visitors center will go up. It is not yet known where Virgin will lodge the astronauts for three days of training. It could choose the bigger town of Las Cruces to the south.

But T or C’s townspeople are particularly proud that Ted Turner, the media mogul turned conservationist and local rancher, bought the historic Sierra Grande Lodge last year, citing myriad reasons, including Spaceport, his friend Branson and the famous waters of the dusty town once called Hot Springs.

The 30-mile drive out to Spaceport America over the sparsely populated high desert plain is a journey through time.

Paleo-Indians roamed here some 12,000 years ago, the Spanish built the El Camino Real passage here, a century-old dam across the Rio Grande brought settlement and White Sands Missile Range made it a gigantic area of restricted air space.

While Spaceport brings a futuristic vision to the old West, it is meant to blend in. The signature building, designed by the firm of British architect Sir Norman Foster, melds into the distant mountains like a giant portobello mushroom.

‘It feels much more real, but it also feels like I am looking at something that is a set for a science-fiction movie,’ said visitor Doug Sporn while on the Follow The Sun tour to Spaceport after hearing Branson would go to space soon.

The fact that the spaceport is more than half an hour’s drive from anywhere complicates matters. The spaceport has to have its own water supply, fire trucks and resident crew of firefighters, for example.

Branson isn’t the only famous entrepreneur here. He is joined by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, founded in 2002 with the ultimate goal of sending people to inhabit other planets.

SpaceX, which already has craft supplying the International Space Station, has chosen Spaceport to test the Falcon 9 reusable rocket, meaning that it will launch vertically and then land intact.

‘It really is the democratization of space,’ said Spaceport Executive Director Christine Anderson, ‘that you and I and our children and grandchildren can think about going to space, about going to Mars.’

She estimates there will be 200,000 visitors per year to Spaceport ‘when all our customers are flying.’

Those kinds of numbers are feeding the first shoots of space business, from Jeff Dukatt’s psychedelic T-shirts sporting a cowboy-on-rocket motif to Follow The Sun’s new Spaceplace tour base where freeze-dried ice cream is for sale and there is extra space for start-ups to operate.

‘We don’t know where the opportunities are going to be, we just know a facility like this will line us up,’ said Follow The Sun’s Mark Bleth, echoing the kind of wonder around town about where this all could lead.

Then there is that lingering question of whether T or C can preserve the quirky character and Western ruggedness that has attracted free spirits and artists for decades.

‘My guess is that the real culture and heritage of Southern New Mexico is pretty firmly ingrained,’ said Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. ‘I would doubt that just because we start doing our spaceflights the intrinsic character changes.’

Lohr, the artist, relishes the ‘nice mini-culture embedded in a trailer town,’ and said Spaceport shouldn’t detract from its charms, but rather attract more interest in them.

If he gets a free ticket, Lohr is game to go to space, but only ‘if Yoda would come with me.’

HOW WILL SPACE TOURISM WORK? THE LOGISTICS OF LEAVING THE PLANET BEHIND AS A PAYING CUSTOMER

Ticket cost: The starting price for flights is $250,000 – the first ceremonial flight will be undertaken by Richard Branson and his family=

Training: Passengers are required to go through a ‘Pre-Flight Experience Program’, including three days of pre-flight preparing onsite at the spaceport to ensure passengers are physically and mentally fit to fly

Once aboard: SpaceShipTwo will carry six passengers and two pilots. Each passenger gets the same seating position with two large windows – one to the side and one overhead. The space ship is 60ft long with a 90in diameter cabin allowing maximum room for the astronauts to float in zero gravity

Flight path: A climb to 50,000ft before the rocket engine ignites. Passengers become ‘astronauts’ when they reach the Karman line, the boundary of Earth’s atmosphere, at which point SpaceShipTwo separates from its carrier aircraft, White Knight II. The spaceship will make a sub-orbital journey with approximately six minutes of weightlessness, with the entire flight lasting approximately 3.5 hours. The spaceship accelerates to approximately 3,000 mph – or nearly four times the speed of sound

Flight frequency: Initially one per week, eventually to have two flights per day
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Virgin Galactic set to open $212 million Spaceport America

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