Back in 1990, the concept of a commercial spaceport, where regular people could take rides into space, had its beginnings with the vision of several people and $1.4 million in seed money from congress, with the help of then New Mexico senior senator Pete Dominici. In 2006, the NM legislature enacted laws providing for the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport. It is named "Spaceport America." As I write this, the first runway is being paved. The buildings will be constructed this year.
The money for the actual enterprise, as well as the "space ships" is being put up by Virgin Galactic, a company of Sir Richard Branson, Britain's man with the midas touch in air travel and all other things of the Virgin empire. Sir Richard has announced that New Mexico will be Virgin Galactic's world headquarters.
The facility's first launch tenet is UP Aerospace. Virgin Galactic has signed a 20-year lease as the anchor tenet, agreeing to pay $1 million a year for the first five years, plus more based on the number of launches its company makes.
Ok, I realize you are stifling chuckles at the absurdity of commercial space travel, but they have already presold a bunch of tickets at $200,000 a pop. They are scheduled to be open for business late this summer, with weekly launches at first and daily launches expected soon thereafter. Admittedly, the only person so far to be launched into space by a private company (not by these people in New Mexico) was (at his request) the ashes of actor James Doohan, who played Scotty on the original Star Trek series. Here I need to be honest and admit that particular launch was "unsuccessful" and resulted in the loss of Scotty's ashes, along with the ashes of former astronaut Gordon Cooper and three government satellites. In New Mexico, we are much more reliable and there are honestly many real live people with real actual tickets waiting to go. I myself, though a proud New Mexican, will wait for them to get a couple of successes under their belt. And a drop in prices.
I admit something like this excites me and I don't mind (as a New Mexico taxpayer) forking over money for stuff like this. Much of our money in NM is wasted on far worse things.
Basically, we are talking "low space" launches (meaning non-orbital) at first. Essentially they'll be like the first Mercury mission, more or less. Except that the launch rocket piggybacks on a mother ship (like a 747) to about 50,000 feet and then is jettisoned (like the first experimental shuttle "Enterprise" except this one will be powered.) If you don't have a little basic knowledge of the early American space programs, I am probably not making sense to you.
Don't be so quick to scoff - a lot of weird things have happened in New Mexico you probably don't know about. We'll see. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
The author of this blog was driving by the spaceport not too long ago and took the below two pictures. There isn't much to see from the highway and I was not inclined to drive down the long lonely-looking road to the actual facility. All I could see in the distance (second picture) was some small buildings of some sort and a tall antenna. Ah well.
Click to enlarge.
Bottom 2 photos copyright 2010, Tom Osburn