UPHAM, N.M. ? A new private spaceship designed to carry tourists to space touched down for the first time Friday (Oct. 22) on the runway of Spaceport America, soon to become its home base.
About 600 people watched as Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, carried by its mothership WhiteKnightTwo, glided down in the southern New Mexico desert to celebrate the dedication of the spaceport's runway. [Photo: SpaceShipTwo over Spaceport America]
Spaceport America is touted as the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport, and will serve as the headquarters for Virgin Galactic's suborbital spacecraft once the spaceport is complete. A giant hangar and other facilities are still under construction.
"I can't wait for our first day of commercial operations here," said Virgin Galactic founder and British billionaire Sir Richard Branson. "Today is very personal as our dream becomes more real."
While SpaceShipTwo is designed to make shortjoyrides to suborbital space, Virgin Galactic has set its sights on orbital travel, too.
"Obviously, we want to move on to orbital after we've got suborbital under our belts, and maybe even before that," Branson said.
The company will aim to win a NASA contract to transport astronauts to the International Space Station, he said. The space agency plans to look to private space companies to take over this task once the space shuttle fleet retires next year.
"We plan to start work on an orbital program quite quickly," Branson said.
This new partnership between NASA and commercial spaceflight companies was authorized by a NASA authorization bill just signed into law by President Obama earlier this month.
NASA's deputy administrator Lori Garver was on hand at the spaceport dedication to affirm the agency's support for the burgeoning private space industry.
"I can assure you, we wish you nothing but clear skies and success ahead. Godspeed," Garver said.
Branson and his family are set to be the first passengers aboard SpaceShipTwo when it begins official operations in nine to 18 months, he said.
After them, the line of people waiting for a ride is growing. More than 380 customers have already put down a total of over $50 million in deposits toward SpaceShipTwo flights. [Video: SpaceShipTwo's First Solo Glide Test.]
"It's like Christmas, you want to go, you can't wait," said future Virgin Galactic passenger Sonja Rohde, who was onsite to celebrate the spaceport's dedication. "I'm not scared, just excited," she said of her trip.
Rohde is among a group of "founders" who have already paid the $200,000 ticket price in full.
"It was always a childhood dream to go to space," Rohde told SPACE.com. "Now I'm the first German woman to come to space."
Another founder, Perveen Crawford of Hong Kong, said the cost of a Virgin Galactic trip was definitely worth it.
"It's a bargain compared to the Russians," she said, referencing the roughly $35 million past space tourists have paid to Russia's federal space agency to ride aboard the Soyuz to the International Space Station.
By comparison, the SpaceShipTwo flights will only be in space for about five minutes, providing a brief experience of weightlessness and the view of Earth from above before heading back down to the ground.
Virgin Galactic has been making steady progress in readying its spaceship for flight.
SpaceShipTwo made its first ever solo test flight Oct. 10, when it was dropped by WhiteKnightTwo in midair and glided down to the ground.
The craft is set to make its first solo powered flight, when it will fire its rocket engines, in the next few months.
"Today we are closer to the dream that we all share than we have ever been," said Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides.
To mark the dedication of Spaceport America, officials announced the main runway will be named "The Governor Bill Richardson Spaceway" after the current governor of New Mexico.
"What a great day for the state of New Mexico and for space," Richardson said. Branson and other private space pioneers credited the governor with helping to make the spaceport possible.
"I hope that New Mexico is branded as a place where someone with a good idea can make it happen," Richardson said.
Branson said New Mexico was the perfect place for SpaceShipTwo's home base.
"The wide expanse of open country, the clear space, the excellent weather ? where else would you build Spaceport America?" Branson said.
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