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

LAS CRUCES, New Mexico ? Dignitaries are sharpening their speeches, Shovels are at the ready. Hard hats are being polished. A dirt-shoving grader is undergoing a tune-up?and organizers are cooking up a hush-hush list of surprises.

Hundreds of onlookers are gathering here for the formal groundbreaking ceremony of Spaceport America, the world?s first purpose-built commercial spaceport.

The June 19 event is being billed as a major step in the history and future of spaceflight ? with Spaceport America serving as a launch pad for a new era of commercial space, including the boosting of public space travel to the suborbital heights.

Weather and flight test program permitting, the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft is due to cruise by on a long duration sky hop from California?s Mojave Air and Space Port over to Spaceport America.

That huge mothership of a craft, now undergoing an ever-expanding list of test objectives, is designed to eventually haul to drop altitude ? some 50,000 feet ? the six passenger/two pilot SpaceShipTwo suborbital rocket plane ? the one-two punch behind Sir Richard Branson?s Virgin Galactic spaceliner operations.

Huge milestone

The sprawling inland Spaceport America is to be built upon 27 square miles, some 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of Truth or Consequences and 45 miles (72 kilometers) north of Las Cruces.

?It?s coming together,? said Steve Landeene, Executive Director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority. ?It pays tribute to the folks that have put in decades of work for this day.?

Spaceport America is both an exciting, as well as a challenging project, Landeene told SPACE.com, and something that takes everybody rowing in the same direction.

??The groundbreaking is an enormous milestone for Virgin Galactic which is investing over $300 million in developing the new space launch system which will operate at Spaceport America after it opens,? said Will Whitehorn, President of Virgin Galactic. ?We have a long lease at the Spaceport and this groundbreaking event clearly signals the birth of a new commercial age in space,? he said.

Whitehorn also underscored the ?huge milestone? given WhiteKnightTwo?s projected appearance as the mega carrier craft -- called Eve after Sir Richard Branson?s mother -- makes a soaring flyover of Spaceport America.

?This will be a record breaking non-stop test flight for the world?s largest carbon composite aviation vehicle and put her firmly in the record books,? Whitehorn told SPACE.com.

Diverse portfolio

Landeene emphasized that Spaceport America is being geared to build the momentum for a lively commercial space industry. While Virgin Galactic is a key player in using the New Mexico facility, ?it?s not just about space tourism,? he added, ?it?s about a brand new tool for scientific exploration?for light satellite delivery? and other purposes.

?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,? Landeene said. ?The key is a diverse portfolio,? he added, including the delivery of small satellites into Earth orbit from the site, for national security purposes, as well as carry out scientific research and development.

Indeed, along with the Virgin Galactic partnership, there?s UP Aerospace, the Rocket Racing League, Payload Specialties and Microgravity Enterprises, Inc., and others that are eager to make use of Spaceport America. For example, Lockheed Martin Space Systems near Denver, Colorado has already been testing new launch and recovery technologies within the grounds of Spaceport America.

?I see a paradigm shift?when we create this low-cost access to space. These are brand new tools that the U.S. government did not have to fund,? Landeene emphasized.

Landeene said that the core facility at Spaceport America is targeted for completion by the end of 2010. From there, it will go into tenant improvement work, which could push the ?grand opening ceremony? of Spaceport America into early 2011. The terminal hangar facility needs to be ready when Virgin Galactic is ready,? he said, a structure that is the operational heart of the spaceliner firm and its storage of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo flight hardware.

Undertaking and completing the infrastructure is a catalyst for economic development, tourism and education, Landeene emphasized ?The prime message is that Spaceport America is the gateway to space.?

NOTE: You can watch the Spaceport America groundbreaking live via a webcast on Friday, June 19, 2009 at 11 AM (Mountain Standard Time MST) by going to:

http://www.spaceportamerica.com/

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than four decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.

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