It has been rumored for years that New Mexico is the preferred landing spot for aliens and their spacecraft. Now, with Virgin Galactic, the state plans to build a "spaceport" in its desert to send off Earth's own tourists in spacecrafts.
Upon considering just how much money British entrepreneur Richard Branson really has, perhaps it is not totally preposterous that the founder of the Virgin Group (and its fledgling space-faring wing, Virgin Galactic) last month reached an agreement with authorities in New Mexico to construct the world's first commercial spaceport.
Branson's Virgin Galactic, the first company to develop commercial flights to space, plans to launch tourists on suborbital space rides from the spaceport's future five-vehicle fleet. The British operation would have a 20-year lease on the spaceport, with initial annual payments to the state of $1 million, according to the Aero-News Network.
New Mexico's Southwestern Regional Spaceport's future $225 million site will be built on a patch of wasteland, 27 miles in Upham, wedged between a mountain ridge and the White Sands Missile Range, 45 miles northeast of Las Cruces and 30 miles east of Truth or Consequences. Construction is expected to begin early in 2007.
New Mexico has been planning to build a commercial spaceport for more than a decade, according to Discovery News online. "New Mexico, with its high altitude, sunny climate and low population, has been pushing hard to make a name for itself as a center of space commercialization," reported Reuters (via CNET). New Mexico is an ideal operations base, due to its stable climate, free airspace, low population density, high altitude and stunning scenery. "Dry weather reduces the possibility of corrosion and the high altitude makes reusable launch vehicles more cost-efficient in terms of the fuel needed to reach space," Reuters further said.
According to state officials, the $200+ million investment will be used for the spaceport building itself, as well as roads and utilities to support it, while the project also depends on money from the federal government. Designs for the launch facility have been drawn by a French designer whose previous projects include ahem "office chairs, handbags and slick-looking colanders," noted The Guardian. Ninety percent of the launch center is expected to be built underground with only runways and a few buildings visible from the surface; this to minimize environmental disruption.
Virgin Galactic has partnered with aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and his team, who last year successfully flew the world's first privately built piloted spaceship, SpaceShipOne. (Remember SpaceShipOne? The rocket-plane claimed $10 million after winning the Ansari X Prize, a competition set up to challenge engineers to build a vehicle that could transport people into space, return and fly again within a few days. The winning vehicle now hangs in the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C.) This new venture is called The Spaceship Co., and it is building the fleet of five vehicles, each of which is modeled after SpaceShipOne and is capable of carrying six or seven passengers and two pilots.
Like its predecessor, the cleverly named prototype SpaceShipTwo will be "about the size of a Gulfstream 5 business jet," according to Discovery News. It will be carried "aloft atop a specially designed jet and released before firing its rocket engines to reach a suborbital altitude." After four or five minutes at this altitude, the ship will then re-enter the atmosphere and glide to a conventional-runway landing.
Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, told the Wall Street Journal that the project is much more than a high-priced thrill ride: "It's very easy to see it as a toy or a plaything. It's an investment in itself." Virgin Galactic already has collected more than $10 million in deposits from wannabe-astronauts, each of whom plans to fork over invest about $200,000 for four or five minutes' of weightlessness.
Each flight will last a total of two-and-a-half hours, and passengers will be tethered to their seats. [It should be noted for our detail-minded readers that, although it has not yet been confirmed whether pretzels or peanuts will be included in the flight's cost, The Guardian has publicly addressed the lavatory concern: there is no toilet. We await further details on this matter.] Approved passengers would need less than a week of training.
While actual tourist flights from the U.S. to the leading edge of Earth's orbit are likely several years away, companies from several countries are racing to refine their space technology to satisfy regulators and make it affordable, reliable and safe. The first space flight is expected to launch in 2008. For reservations, drop your cool $200K and get behind the other 38,000 adventurous souls from 126 countries already on the reservations list.
What about you, dear readers would you pay that much for a suborbital space ride, i.e., max five minutes' of weightlessness? (Keep in mind, with $200,000 you can buy 10 Badonkadonks or even 1,724 of the highest priced Ubertaps available. Just sayin'.)
ReferencesNew Mexico Plans First 'Spaceport' For Space Travel
by Laura Meckler
The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 9, 2005
Space Tourist Ship To Fly from New Mexico
by Irene Mona Klotz
Discovery News (The Discovery Channel), Dec. 14, 2005
First spaceport will offer out of this world trips
by Ian Sample
The Guardian, Dec. 14, 2005
New Mexico to be Virgin space hub
Reuters (via CNET), Dec. 9, 2005
Virgin Selects NM For Spaceport
The Aero-News Network, Dec. 14, 2005
New Mexico to be site of spaceport
PhysOrg, Dec. 13, 2005
AdditionalWilliam Shatner wants to boldly go where he's only pretended to go so far
CNN, Oct. 22, 2004
Update:News for space tourists
Reuters, Jan. 4, 2006