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Countdown to launch

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

SPACEPORT AMERICA, N.M. – It’s a bit hazardous these days to traverse the seven miles of dirt and gravel roads that lead from Spaceport America’s main horizontal runway to the vertical launch pad area.

A steady flow of trucks kicks up clouds as they haul dirt and other materials to the site where the Spaceport Authority is building a large launch pad for Space Exploration Technologies Corp., better known as SpaceX, to conduct test flights on a new, reusable rocket it is developing.

“We’re expanding the vertical launch pad area and adding capabilities,” said Spaceport Executive Director Christine Anderson. “We’ve set up some new trailers with amenities like air conditioning and WiFi that can be leased by customers, and we just put in mobile communications capability at the site.”

The vertical launch area, where UP Aerospace shot its latest rocket into space last month, is bustling with activity as SpaceX prepares to move in and as UP plans for its next suborbital flight, scheduled for October.

Alive with activity

It’s a prelude of things to come at the Spaceport’s central facilities, from which Virgin Galactic plans to send paying passengers into space. That area is also alive with the comings and goings of people working on the final phases of construction, and with busloads of weekend tourists on guided visits from Truth or Consequences, where Sun Inc./FTS Tours, the official Spaceport tour operator, has set up shop.

A steady flow of national and international reporters regularly come through to shoot photos and documentaries. And private companies, such as General Motors and Nike, frequently arrive with camera crews to make futuristic commercials on the launch runway.

As the hustle and bustle gains momentum, a feeling of countdown to launch is gripping the Spaceport, fueled by steady progress in Virgin Galactic’s preparations to reach space.

Passenger flights to space are expected to begin in December in the Mojave Desert in California, with Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson on board with his family. Shortly thereafter, paying passengers will start boarding rockets at Spaceport America.

Ambitious target

“Our aspiration is to get to space by the end of the year,” said Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. “That depends on a lot of things happening before then, but that’s our goal.”

The company completed the first rocket-powered flight of its space vehicle, SpaceShipTwo, on April 29 in the Mojave Desert. A second flight is expected this month as part of Virgin’s strategy to go higher and faster on each test run until reaching suborbit.

Ultimately, the spacecraft will go at least 62 miles up, the internationally defined boundary for space, where passengers will float in microgravity and view the earth’s curvature for a few minutes before coming back down.

To get to space, the rocket is carried on the underbelly of WhiteKnightTwo, the mothership that takes off horizontally. At a certain altitude, SpaceShipTwo breaks away, fires its rockets and turns upward toward space while gaining speed.

In the first flight, the ship successfully fired its rockets and accelerated to the speed of sound.

“We didn’t go tremendously high, because the first test was basically aimed at reaching supersonic speed,” Whitesides told the Journal . “In our next powered flight, the ship will burn a bit longer, and it will go a bit faster and a bit higher.”

The April flight revved up public expectation that paying passengers will soon board rockets. Virgin has received a new wave of down payments since April from customers reserving seats on future flights.

Space ticket sales up

“Sales ramped up after our first powered flight,” Whitesides said. “We’ve passed 610 paying customers. That’s $70 million in deposits in the bank.”

Those reservations represent $122 million in advance ticket sales once passengers pay their full fare of $200,000 per person.

As flight dates draw closer, Virgin Galactic is also beefing up its facilities at Spaceport America.

The Spaceport Authority inaugurated Virgin’s dome-shaped terminal building and its ship hangars last summer. The company is now working on the terminal interior, where people will gather for WhiteKnightTwo launches.

The spaceport’s central facilities are complete, including a 2,000-foot extension to the horizontal runway that was finished in June, bringing it to 12,000 feet. That will provide an additional safety zone for launches, Anderson said.

Next up is construction of a 17,000-square-foot visitors center to greet and educate tourists as they arrive at the spaceport.

“We’ve completed all the architectural drawings for the center, and we hope to have it built in a little more than a year,” Anderson said. “It will be filled with cool, interactive educational stuff to learn more about commercial space, plus a 3-D theater, a restaurant and an observation deck for customers to watch launches.”

Last major project

The last major project is the paving of 24 miles of county roads to offer a southern entrance to the spaceport from Interstate 25, which should be finished by mid-2014.

All construction to date has been paid for with $209 million in state funds. But, in the future, infrastructure upgrades and additions will be covered through lease fees from Virgin and other tenants, user fees from non-tenant companies that conduct testing and rocket flights, and income from tourism. The goal is to be self-supporting, Anderson said.

To that end, the spaceport has gotten an unexpected boost from private companies and movie producers wanting to shoot promotional advertisements at the facility. That includes car commercials by General Motors and Aston Martin, sneaker ads by Nike, and a promotional video by Will Smith and his son Jaden that was shot for their summer sci-fi movie “After Earth.”

New revenue streams will become important for needed infrastructure as space-related activities gain momentum, not just at the horizontal launching area, but at the vertical launch pad as well.

While most public attention is riveted on Virgin Galactic, UP Aerospace and other companies eventually plan to move beyond suborbital payload flights.

“For us, suborbital launches are stepping stones to orbit,” said UP President and CEO Jerry Larson. “That’s always been our goal, and we’re working on a vehicle now. We’re using suborbital launches to test everything and shake out all the bugs before moving to the next stage.”

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