New Mexico pushes forward with spaceport project

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Virgin Galactic, the spaceport’s anchor tenant, has signed a 20-year lease and already has invested millions of dollars in the development of its spaceships, which Branson has described as “sexy beasts.” Just this week, it completed another test flight of SpaceShipTwo’s feathering technology, which allows the craft to safely re-enter the atmosphere.

More feathering and glide tests are planned along with rocket tests, Whitesides said.

Tickets for SpaceShipTwo cost $200,000. The 2 1/2-hour flights will include about five minutes of weightlessness and views of Earth that until now only astronauts have been able to experience.

More than 425 people have made deposits totaling more than $55 million, Whitesides said.

So when will the first flight take off from Spaceport America?

Whitesides made no promises, other than to say the rough time line spans 12 to 18 months.

The trick for New Mexico is ensuring that the terminal hangar is ready, that the project stays within budget and that private investors can be brought on board to help build out future phases of the complex.

Progress has been made on the terminal hangar since October, when Branson, Whitesides and other officials helped dedicate the spaceport’s nearly two-mile long runway. Officials say it’s more than 80 percent complete and should be done by year’s end.

The spaceport authority also has issued a request for proposals for developing a “visitors’ experience.” This isn’t going to be an average visitors’ center, Anderson said.

“The first flight by Virgin, whenever that is, that one day the eyes of the world will be out here on Spaceport America. So I would like to have as much of it in place that day as possible,” she said.

Some critics still question whether Spaceport America will live up to its promise of drawing high-tech ventures to the state.

Whitesides, a former NASA chief of staff, and Anderson, who built a career on the cutting edge of aircraft, missile and space systems, said commercial space flight is no longer pie-in-the-sky.

“It’s almost hard to believe. Sometimes I have to pinch myself that we’re so close right now. It’s an exciting moment,” said Whitesides, who will be among the early customers.

Judy Wallin, whose family has ranched in the area since the mid-1950s, agreed. Officials first approached her family in 1992 about the prospect of building a spaceport in this dry, desolate valley.

Their response: “A what? What for?”

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