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Spaceport America vision at the edge of paying off big

They sealed the deal 14 years ago with a handshake in the New Mexico desert.

Sir Richard Branson and then-Gov. Bill Richardson had flown by helicopter to a site marked with a scaffolding pole at what is now Spaceport America, about 50 miles north of Las Cruces. “Build us a world-class spaceport and we’ll bring you a world-class space line,” Branson recalled telling Richardson.

It was a huge gamble for both men – one Branson says was based on vision and trust. New Mexico’s side of the deal carries a price tag in excess of $220 million, while Branson and other investors have pumped more than $1 billion into the effort to fly tourists into space and return them to N.M.

That gamble may be on the verge of paying big dividends.

Branson, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced this month the company is ready to move the rest of its flight operations – another 100 personnel including engineers, mechanics, flight crews and pilots – from Mojave in California to New Mexico.

The time is right, Whitesides says, because after successful test flights of Virgin Galactic’s mothership and spaceship Unity in December and February, the company is ready to take the final steps to launching civilian tourists into space.

“New Mexico is becoming the first place to regularly launch humans into space on flights conducted by a private company,” Branson said. While Whitesides emphasizes the difficulty of the task and says there is still “work to do,” there are hints the initial flight could take place within a year. If and when it happens, it will be a historic event with the entire world focused on New Mexico. The opportunities to capitalize on this and take long-term, game-changing steps to restructure our economy are unlimited. Lujan Grisham gets it, and it will be up to her and others to ensure we take advantage.

A journey like this inevitably includes pain. Virgin Galactic has suffered setbacks, including a fatal crash in 2014 of its first SpaceShipTwo. There have been plenty of skeptics in New Mexico who scoffed as the Spaceport struggled to attract tenants and stay above water financially while making improvements – officials have frequently appeared in the Legislature with cup in hand. And multiple delays mean no tourists have traveled to the edge of space yet – by 2012, 3,000 were supposed to have made the trip.

Whitesides notes what Virgin Galactic is trying to do “has never been done,” but it appears close, and hundreds of people around the world have paid deposits for a $250,000 ride into space. After that? Perhaps point-to-point travel via a global network of spaceports, and in the more distant future cruise ships making an orbit around the moon – all changing human consciousness to reinforce the idea we are one planet.

“We want to open space to change the world for good,” Virgin Galactic chief flight instructor Beth Moses told the gathering in Santa Fe.

Whitesides notes the first launch with civilian passengers also marks the closing of a circle. The first photos of our planet from space were taken Oct. 24, 1946, with a camera mounted on a captured German V-2 rocket and launched from the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range, not far from Spaceport America. The camera captured images every 1.5 seconds as the rocket reached an altitude of 65 miles before crashing back to earth. The film canister survived and produced the grainy images of earth against the black background of space that previously existed only in imagination.

On the verge of taking an unprecedented step in human expansion into the solar system, it’s worth reflecting on those pioneers at WSMR in 1946 and all those who have followed. Congratulations to Branson and Richardson for their vision, and the Virgin Galactic team and state officials through three administrations for their tenacity and perseverance.

We’re not there yet, but it’s becoming more likely. Imagination could once again become reality.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.