Conceptual artwork depicts New Mexico spaceport, given a preliminary price tag of $225 million. Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has struck a 20-year lease on the futuristic spaceport to handle the firm’s suborbital spaceliner operations. Artwork: Courtesy Virgin Galactic
The first purpose-built commercial spaceport for the personal spaceflight industry is to be constructed in New Mexico, a deal struck between the state and Virgin Galactic, the private spaceline firm created by British billionaire, Sir Richard Branson.
Details of the partnership were unveiled today in a Santa Fe, New Mexico gathering of state officials led by Governor Bill Richardson, spaceport planning officials, and leaders of Virgin Galactic, including Branson.
Richardson announced that he will work with the state legislature to secure a three year commitment for a total of $100 million for the state's share of the funding to build the world's first commercial spaceport to be built in southern New Mexico.
The Governor's funding package will be the cornerstone of a larger $225 million financial construction package that includes local, state and federal funding to build New Mexico's spaceport in Upham, New Mexico.
Ground floor of public space travel
In announcing the partnership, Richardson emphasized that New Mexico wants to be on the ground floor of public space travel. He said that today's announcement will "change the face of the state and change the face of the world."
Calling it a very simple, but highly significant agreement, Richardson explained that the state of New Mexico "will build the first spaceport and Virgin Galactic will locate their mission and headquarters right here in New Mexico."
"I would be interested in flying the first time out of the New Mexico spaceport...I'd be interested in being the first New Mexican," Richardson said in a post-announcement press briefing.
Rick Homans, New Mexico Spaceport Authority Chairman and New Mexico Economic Development Department Secretary said that construction of the spaceport will begin as early as 2007 and be completed by 2009 or 2010.
No model to follow
Branson explained that with the historic partnership, "New Mexico will be known around the world as the launch pad of the new space industry." He said that within a few years "we intend to take two to three flights a day to space from New Mexico."
"We're going where no one has gone before. There's no model to follow, nothing to copy. That is what makes this so exciting," Branson explained. "We might even be able to allow those aliens who landed at Roswell 50 years ago in a UFO a chance to go home."
At today's ceremonies, Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, said that his company believes the future of space doesn't lie in just ground-based rocketry. Rather, air-launched spaceships are the way to establish safe, affordable, mass transportation into space.
Whitehorn said that it has taken governments four decades to get 500 people to space. "We hope to do that in year one...and eventually be carrying up to 10,000 people a year by the later years of the project," he said.
Prior to commercial space treks from New Mexico, Whitehorn said that Mojave, California is the site for an extensive test program of some 50 to 60 flights of SpaceShipTwo. That craft is now under development by aerospace designer, Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites based in Mojave, California.
Current conceptual views of the spaceport, Whitehorn said, are tied to making it "the most environmentally-friendly spaceport/airport type structure that's been built." Largely to be fabricated underground, the New Mexico spaceport, for example, would use solar energy and an advanced water collection system.
Spotlighting the natural beauty of New Mexico, Whitehorn said that spaceport facilities will be underground as much as possible, "actually hidden from the ground, but visible when you're in space and coming back to the Earth."
On hand at the spaceport announcement today was movie actress Victoria Principal. She has already purchased a $200,000 Virgin Galactic ticket.
"I am thrilled about the first Virgin Galactic civilian flight scheduled for 2008 and I look forward to being on it," Principal told the audience. "We're on an era of a new form of transportation and a way of life that we've never known before," she said.
On order: five spaceship systems
In a statement from Rutan's Scaled Composites today, the group congratulated Virgin and New Mexico on their spaceport plans.
On October 4, 2004, Rutan's SpaceShipOne rocketed into history, becoming the first private piloted spacecraft to exceed an altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers) twice in as many weeks, thus claiming the X Prize Foundation's $10 million dollar Ansari X Prize. SpaceShipOne's development was bankrolled by Microsoft's co-founder, Paul Allen.
In July, Branson and Rutan announced their signing of an agreement to form The Spaceship Company to build a fleet of commercial suborbital spaceships and launch aircraft.
Under license from Paul Allen's Mojave Aerospace Company, The Spaceship Company will adopt the "care-free reentry" concept and the "cantilevered-hybrid" rocket motor technology developed for the Ansari X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne.
Scaled's development work on the commercial suborbital spaceliner design will be performed in its current Mojave, California facilities. The Spaceship Company production is also planned to take place at the Mojave Spaceport.
The Scaled statement today noted that Virgin Galactic has ordered five spaceship systems and has options on more. Following delivery of the Virgin Galactic ships, The Spaceship Company "will supply flight hardware to additional commercial spaceline operators."
The blossoming commercial space flight industry will be facilitated by the purpose-built commercial spaceport, the statement from Scaled noted. "The new industry's expected volume will require multiple sites and New Mexico's planned space-dedicated facility will be a key element in building this expanding business."
Real-estate and air space
"We're thrilled that Governor Richardson was able to bring Virgin Galactic to Southern New Mexico. We also want to congratulate Richard Branson for making an excellent choice. New Mexico has the real-estate, the air space and most of all the political will to be a great home for Virgin Galactic," said Peter Diamandis, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer for the X Prize Foundation, based in Santa Monica , California.
Diamandis told SPACE.com in an earlier interview that the concept of the X Prize Cup was to create a "nest" that will attract multiple companies and build a core industry. That vision is coming to fruition, he added.
"With companies like Virgin and Starchaser landing in New Mexico, and the finals of the Rocket Racing League, we're getting the commercial critical mass for the personal spaceflight industry needed to make it successful," Diamandis said.
Diamandis suggested that the analog to what is taking place in New Mexico is automotive racing.
"Indianapolis was able to attract the Indianapolis 500, and the motor speedway and now there are hundreds of related corporations from the racing teams themselves, to engine manufacturers and merchandise companies," Diamandis noted. "The X Prize Cup vision is to do the same in Southern New Mexico."
Fascinating turn of events
Michael Kelly, Vice President of Operations for the X Prize Foundation called the Branson tie to the New Mexico spaceport a "fascinating turn of events."
Kelly said that about two years before Dennis Tito footed the bill on his personal flight to the International Space Station via a Russian Soyuz, it became apparent that the first market for spaceships was going to be suborbital space tourism.
"At that time, the Ansari X Prize seemed as if it may be the catalyst," Kelly told SPACE.com prior to today's announcement. "Both prognostications have come true. It's not a surprise, but it is still almost incredible that all of this is finally happening," he emphasized.
Kelly said that kudos go to Branson for his vision...and willingness to put that vision into action. "I also applaud his choice of location. We also believe that New Mexico is the jumping-off point to the first great wave of personal spaceflight," he said.