UPDATE: Story first posted 1:15 p.m. December 9, 2008
The public space travel company, Virgin Galactic, has identified a new departure point for flying people to the suborbital heights: New Mexico.
Adventurer and British businessman, Sir Richard Branson -- who founded Virgin Galactic in the mid-1990s as one of over 250 business entities inside the Virgin empire--will reportedly outline flight operations in the state next week with New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.
State economic development officials confirm that Virgin Galactic's interest in utilizing the New Mexico spaceport will be detailed in a December 14 press gathering at the New Mexico State Capitol Building in Santa Fe.
"It's the biggest event in the space industry in the last decade," said Rick Homans, Spaceport Authority Chairman and New Mexico Economic Development Department Secretary.
We'll be announcing a very strong and bold partnership between the state of New Mexico and Virgin Galactic," Homans told SPACE.com. "We expect that people will be traveling into space from New Mexico in the next three to four years...and not just one or two but hundreds of people and eventually thousands of people...to experience what space travel is all about."
Homans said he expected the agreement will accelerate the level of innovation, not only in suborbital travel, but orbital and even lunar travel. "That's where this industry is headed, and that's what New Mexico views as the great opportunity," he said.
"Virgin is the best anchor tenant one could hope for," Homans said. "It's a pretty simple agreement, but it has a lot of ramifications for the state and for Virgin Galactic. It's a very deep and important commitment to one another to launch this new industry here in the state of New Mexico."
Next week's announcement will put a lot of wheels in motion, Homans added, and "opens the opportunity for New Mexico to move forward with construction of its spaceport."
New Mexico has already begun blueprinting the still-to-be-built spaceport.
The New Mexico spaceport is to be located near Upham, roughly 45 miles north of Las Cruces and 30 miles east of Truth or Consequences. The now barren stretch of land covers some 27 square miles, having a north-south configuration.
Work is also underway preparing the necessary Environmental Impact Statement paperwork - documentation needed to obtain a spaceport license.
Since 1996, the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Office of the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST) has licensed five spaceports in the United States: California Spaceport at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Spaceport Florida at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the Virginia Space Flight Center at Wallops Island, Kodiak Launch Complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska, and Mojave Airport in California.
Regarding the Branson deal with New Mexico, Patti Grace Smith, Associate Administrator for AST told SPACE.com: "We have no information beyond what's appeared in the press. But those reports are entirely consistent with the mounting interest in private human space flight. It has a bright future, and that future might be even closer than expected."
Branson's Virgin Galactic will own and operate privately built suborbital spaceships, based on SpaceShipOne's design that repeatedly flew to the edge of space last year. That rocket plane was fabricated by aerospace designer Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites in Mojave, California.
Virgin Galactic officials have stated in the past that they expect to create around 3,000 astronauts over five years time. The price per seat on each flight--which will include at least three days of pre-flight training--has been price tagged at $190,000.
Last week, Alex Tai, Director of Operations at Virgin Galactic, spoke of the firm's progress in creating the first commercially-viable passenger spaceline at a meeting of the California Space Authority (CSA), held in Los Angeles, California.
Tai oversees the design and building of a fleet of SpaceShipTwo vehicles now on order with Scaled Composites.
Earlier this year, Branson teamed up with Rutan to establish The Spaceship Company, a joint venture formed to build the commercial suborbital spaceships and launch aircraft.
Tai noted that Virgin Galactic has placed an order for five spaceships--vehicles that are expected to be delivered sometime within the next couple of years, he said.
"We're deep in the engineering program for developing SpaceShipTwo," Tai told the CSA gathering. He pointed out that Virgin Galactic already has some 33,000 registered applications for suborbital flights, as well as received over $10 million in deposits for future suborbital flights.
Tai said that the research and development phase for SpaceShipTwo "will work for us at Mojave quite well," including early operations of the spaceliner. But additional sites to handle public space travel venues were in the offing, he suggested.
"Other states are being exceptionally pro-active," Tai explained, such as New Mexico, Florida, Utah, and Nevada. "They want the business. California does need to step up a little bit and start becoming...more pro-active."
Spaceport inaugural flight
Prior to Virgin Galactic's prospective use of the New Mexico spaceport, unpiloted suborbital rocket flights are already on tap.
"Everything is right on schedule for our March 27 space launch to inaugurate the New Mexico spaceport," said Eric Knight, chief executive officer for UP Aerospace, Inc., based in Unionville, Connecticut.
"Our SpaceLoft XL vehicle will be the primary spacecraft that we will be launching from the New Mexico spaceport," Knight told SPACE.com. The group's suborbital rocket flights can accommodate scientific, research, and commercial payloads.
"It's the workhorse vehicle of our fleet. We believe it has the lowest cost-per-pound of any space transportation system in the world," Knight added.
"It's exciting to be conducting the first space launch from what will be a grand facility," Knight said. "After our rocket flies into space...New Mexico will fulfill a 15-year dream to create an operational spaceport and usher in this new era of space commercialization."