LAS CRUCES — The suborbital space tourism industry is still in its infancy, and Virgin Galactic has not yet moved into the state-financed Spaceport America, but there is already talk of the company using a constellation of such launch sites around the globe.
During a recent talk in Florida, aviation innovator Burt Rutan, the man who developed the prototypes for Virgin Galactic’s two-part launch system, said the company’s founder Sir Richard Branson had plans to use spaceports in as many as six different countries.
Branson’s “plan is to put spaceports in four, five or six different countries,” Rutan said in a talk to the World Affairs Council of Jacksonville, Fla., at the University of North Florida at the end of November. “He (Branson) wants to do one up to where you can let people see the Northern Lights.”
To date, Virgin Galactic has formally talked about plans for two other spaceports, along with the primary base of operations at Spaceport America about 24 miles southeast of Truth or Consequences.
Rutan’s Northern Lights comment referred to a 2008 announcement about Virgin Galactic’s plan to book suborbital flights from a Swedish spaceport tied to the Esrange Space Center.
Last spring, Virgin Galactic announced plans to build another spaceport, in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, with the project led by Steve Landeene, a former New Mexico Spaceport Authority executive director who oversaw the start of the project’s construction until his departure in 2010. In 2009, Aabar Investments, an Abu Dhabi state-backed investment firm, bought a nearly one-third share in Virgin Galactic.
In response to questions about the company’s plans for other spaceports, a Virgin Galactic spokesman issued a statement: “VG is focused on Spaceport America for commercial operations. The concept of potential VG operations at other spaceports is still in the early stages. . . . The company has been approached by many other locations in the U.S. and around the world. New Mexico has world-class facilities and, with the right business plan and appropriate state support, the potential to continue to be the world leader.”
Current Spaceport Authority executive director Christine Anderson said she expects there will be many more spaceports as the nascent industry matures and expands.
“I am often asked, ‘Are you worried that Virgin Galactic, Spaceport America’s anchor tenant, may make more spaceplanes and fly them elsewhere? Are you concerned that there are more spaceports?’” Anderson wrote in an emailed response to questions. “Frankly, I think these are signs of a growing market and the belief that the commercial space industry is worthy of investment now.”
The terminal at the $209 million Spaceport America is finished, and Virgin Galactic is set to move in, while a 2,000-foot extension to a 10,000-foot runway is expected to be completed in June.
Virgin Galactic’s two-stage flight system — a rocket-powered spaceplane launched at an altitude of 50,000 feet after being dropped by a double-hulled plane called White-KnightTwo — is still undergoing flight tests in California. Company executives have said the first passenger-bearing flight could occur by the end of 2013.