Conceptual rendering of the planned on-site visitors center at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
A giant spaceport under construction in New Mexico is aiming not only to be the launching site for a new fleet of private spaceships, but a tourist destination in its own right, its designers say.
New plans released Tuesday (Feb. 7) detail the immersive visitor experience in store for tourists who visit Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, N.M. — whether or not they plan launch spaceward on a rocket flight.
"We are designing a learning-enriched, hands-on immersion into what space is going to be about for the next twenty years," said Bob Allen, chief storytelling officer for IDEAS, the firm hired to design the facility's visitor experience, in a statement. "We want a relationship with our guests that lasts generations."
The $209 million spaceport will be the hub for Virgin Galactic's planned suborbital space tourist rides aboard its SpaceShipTwo space plane under development. The center has already hosted several unmanned suborbital launches for commercial space companies, most recently a Jan. 28 launch by the firm Armadillo Aerospace to test a supersonic parachute and reusable rocket technology.
Visitors to the complex, set in the middle of the southern New Mexico desert, will be able to see and touch space technology and artifacts from recent launches, as well as create payloads for flight, and experience interactive and simulation activities. An on-site theater and guided tours will also help tell the story of the spaceport. [Photos: Take a Tour of Spaceport America]
"The Spaceport Experience begins on-line long before a guest arrives at a Welcome Center," Allen said. "There will be a robust virtual environment offering games, mobile apps and content so that especially our younger guests will already feel a part of the new space age by the time they come for a visit."
The New Mexico Spaceport Authority, the state-funded agency overseeing the spaceport project, projects about 200,000 visitors annually.
Traveling theaters called "shuttles" will ferry visitors around the complex while entertaining and educating them. Two "Welcome Centers" near Spaceport America — one in the Village of Hatch in Doña Ana County and another in Truth or Consequences in Sierra County — will serve as gateways to the complex.
"The Welcome Centers are the 'mission briefing' areas where guests become part of the spaceport crew, get updated on current activity, get their credentials and catch a shuttle," Allen said.
As the spaceport is completely funded by the taxpayers of New Mexico, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) is hoping day-trippers, as well as space tourists, bring business to the spaceport and the surrounding communities.
"After reviewing the TEAM IDEAS recommendations and reconciling it with our budget and commitment to the two counties, we are confident that we have a winning solution fulfilling the promise of economic development, tourism and education," said NMSA chairman Rick Holdridge.
The full visitors' experience is expected to be ready in 2013, around the same time Virgin Galactic will likely start flying paying passengers to the edge of space. Until then, Spaceport America runs preview tours for people interested in a sneak-peak at the space-age facility.
The first phase of Spaceport America construction is nearly complete, with a dome-shape terminal hangar and a smaller operations center almost finished. A 2 mile-long (3.2 kilometer) runway is already paved, and will serve as the takeoff and landing spot for SpaceShipTwo and its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo.
More than 400 passengers have already booked flights on the vehicles at $200,000 a ticket.