Virgin Galactic's high-flying WhiteKnightTwo mothership cradles SpaceShipTwo over New Mexico’s Spaceport America.
Virgin Galactic's high-flying WhiteKnightTwo mothership cradles SpaceShipTwo over New Mexico’s Spaceport America.
Credit: Virgin Galactic: Mark Greenberg

Spaceport America is a launching facility for numerous private space companies. Several observers have called it the first spaceport dedicated to commercial spaceflight.

The spaceport broke ground in 2006 in New Mexico and was substantially complete around 2012. 

Virgin Galactic is considered the anchor tenant of Spaceport America; public money contributed at least $209 million to attract Virgin founder Richard Branson and others to establish facilities there. The company has undergone numerous delays in its plans to operate commercial spaceflights. This has led some critics to say that a lot of money has been spent on what is now an only partially operational spaceport.

The age of space tourism officially launched when SpaceShipOne — financed jointly by Scaled Composites and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen — successfully flew into space twice in 2004.

By making the trip, SpaceShipOne secured the Ansari X-Prize and $10 million. Its technology impressed Branson, who announced in 2004 that Virgin would fund the development of a successor spacecraft called SpaceShipTwo. He also announced he was taking reservations for commercial tickets to space for an estimated $200,000 apiece.

The X-Prize also spurred interest in Spaceport America. In 2004, New Mexico won a bid to host the X-Prize Cup, which was intended to be an exhibition to showcase the technologies available for space tourism. The first event occurred in October 2005, drawing 20,000 people to Las Cruces.

Two months later, Branson and then-New Mexico governor Bill Richardson announced a deal to bring the Virgin headquarters to the state. The state would build a facility to host several companies, but Virgin would be the chief tenant.

"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 said at the announcement that December. "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 the time, officials estimated that construction would begin as early as 2007, with the facility opening in 2009 or 2010 for business. Virgin also planned to fly its first commercial spaceflight by the end of the decade.

However, both sides experienced development delays that pushed back their estimates by several years. The target date for Virgin Galactic flights now appears to be fall 2017, according to Forbes. Reported issues affecting Spaceport America include environmental assessment findings and problems with the design of the headquarters interior. 

An artist's concept of Spaceport America, a suborbital spaceport under construction in New Mexico.
An artist's concept of Spaceport America, a suborbital spaceport under construction in New Mexico.
Credit: Spaceport America Conceptual Images URS/Foster + Partners

Spaceport America is fairly isolated from large population centers, with the largest nearby city being Las Cruces — 55 miles away. Government officials spent several months negotiating with landowners for the space that the facility would require to run commercial spaceflights.

On Dec. 11, 2006, an agreement was brokered allowing for 18,000 acres of state trust land. Participants in the pact included the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, the State Land Office, Sierra County and two ranch owners.

Design concepts for the spaceport rolled out in 2007 as two counties agreed to contribute tax money for the construction. Then in 2008, Virgin signed a 20-year lease agreement with the state of New Mexico to put its headquarters and operations at Spaceport America.

Although some flights were already running from launch pads, the official groundbreaking of the facility didn't take place until 2009. Virgin's "Eve" carrier spacecraft — designed to hoist the first SpaceShipTwo above the ground for suborbital runs — made a flypast during the ceremony.

But officials emphasized that they were not relying on Virgin to make their money. Small satellites for military and research purposes were some of the other client types sought.

"We can't have a spaceport that just has a one-sided mission. Because if that mission has a hiccup, then we and this investment are going to have a very bad day," said Steve Landeene, then-executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, in 2009. "The key is a diverse portfolio."

In 2014, Virgin Galactic experienced a fatal test flight that killed one pilot and also pushed back its plans again for a commercial spaceflight. 

In December, the Wall Street Journal wrote that the spaceport still is "largely vacant, with little benefit to surrounding communities" -- and locals were worrying about the future given the crash. At the time, spaceport officials said they were looking for other tenants to complement Virgin (SpaceX is also a tenant.)

In early 2015, a bill moved by New Mexico Senator George K. Muñoz suggested selling Spaceport America, citing problems with waiting for operations to begin. The bill was stranded in finance committee in March 2015, with officials saying there wasn't a lot of widespread support for the idea.

"There was a lot of hoopla before that if 'we build it … they will come,' but it has been several years now and nobody's shown up yet," Muñoz said in a debate cited on Space.com. "New Mexican taxpayers are continuing to foot the bill for a $250 million empty facility that is providing the Legislature shaky operational information at best."

The spaceport also generates money through space work (such as an UP Aerospace launch in mid-2016) and tourism-related activities: "we also host special events, photo-shoots, filming and air-related activities," the facility says on its website. Anderson also emphasizes that the facility is a "long-term investment" that will require help from the state legislature, although Virgin remains committed to the facility.