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Spaceport America opens its doors to visitors

Former NASA astronaut and current Virgin Galactic pilot Frederick “CJ” Sturckow talks about the recent test of SpaceShip Two during the 2019 Spaceport America Open House on Sunday.(Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SPACEPORT AMERICA – Hundreds of families visited New Mexico’s Spaceport America to see the facility firsthand and learn more about plans for Virgin Galactic to offer commercial flights.

Brothers Sean Anderson, 5, Nathan Anderson, 10, and Owen Anderson, 7, of Rio Rancho, operate a Rio Rancho Robo Racers’ robot during Sunday’s festival at Spaceport America. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

“I’m really looking forward to commercial service,” said Virgin Galactic astronaut pilot Frederick “CJ” Sturckow after giving a presentation to the crowd. “After you’ve been in space yourself, one of the funnest things is to share that experience with someone else.”

The former NASA astronaut joined Virgin Galactic in 2013 and was on SpaceShip Two’s VSS Unity alongside test pilot Mark Stucky in December. Many of those at the open house were eager to find out when Virgin Galactic would begin passenger flights to space.

“It’s super exciting for me too,” Sturckow said. “Things are coming along really well with the program. We had two successful test flights in Mojave.”

Virgin Galactic has experienced several delays including a test flight crash in 2014 that killed one pilot and injured another in the Mojave desert. But the company is back on track and expects to offer suborbital passenger flights from New Mexico by the end of this year with tickets starting at $250,000. Virgin Galactic’s owner Sir Richard Branson plans to be on the first flight from Spaceport America.

Ciara Solano, 14, Nathan Garcia, 17, Anthony Garcia, 9, and their mother, Erika Cabrera of Las Cruces, talk with Virgin Galactic’s Cory Leiferman, who holds a SpaceShip Two model. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

“It’s pretty cool,” said Nathan Garcia, a 17-year old high student from Las Cruces High School. “I would like to go up there into space, see how the experience is.”

He attended the festival with his mother, younger sister and brother.

“I get to learn how space works and rockets fly,” 9-year-old Anthony Garcia said.

Lucia Tellez, 10, and her father, Dominic Tellez, of Las Cruces, watch the launch of a model rocket. Lucia later launched a rocket she assembled at Sunday’s event. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

The festival, which drew about 2,000 persons, offered many New Mexicans their first chance to see the state’s Spaceport in person.

“Spaceport America is owned by New Mexico,” said Chris Lopez, director of site operations.

New Mexico taxpayers have invested more than $220 million in the facility.

“The next economy is going to be space,”Lopez said. “We in New Mexico have lost out on opportunities in the semi-conductor world, the software world. Let’s not lose the next industry and this is it.”

Several companies, including EXOS Aerospace, Up Aerospace and ARCA Space Corp, have used the Spaceport for suborbital and orbital launches carrying a variety of research payloads. But Virgin Galactic remains the anchor and most high profile tenant.

Flash mob dancers from the Sol Ballroom Dancers of Las Cruces perform outside a hangar during Spaceport America’s open house. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

The Spaceport’s open house included plenty of family activities designed to celebrate space travel. A DJ played Elton John’s song “Rocket Man” during a model rocket launch and the Sol Ballroom dance group of Las Cruces staged a flash mob “space dance.” Several businesses had booths including the Salud restaurant of Mesilla which offered donut holes decorated to look like earth.

Children off all ages crowded around to watch demonstrations by the Rio Rancho Robo Racers.

“They’re mesmerized by the robots here,” said Reva Kaintz, a Rio Rancho student.

Myron Moore of Las Cruces carries his granddaughter, Annabelle Miller, 2, along Fly-in aircraft parked around the hanger during the 2019 Spaceport America Open House on Sunday, April 7, 2019.(Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

She and fellow Rio Rancho student Bethany Gruenig hoped to encourage other girls visiting the spaceport to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

“Our goal for today is to spread the love for STEM” she said.

The open house at Spaceport America launched the Las Cruces Space Festival which “celebrates a place in space for everyone” with a weeklong series of activities through Saturday.