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Saturday, October 23, 2010
Ceremony Dedicates Spaceport Runway
By Rene Romo
Journal Southern Bureau
TRUTH or CONSEQUENCES — Virgin Galactic's founder, the charismatic British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, probably does not get upstaged very often, but his company's spacecraft accomplished that feat Friday soaring over Spaceport America.
Branson was waxing poetic about history being made at the southern Sierra County construction site of what state officials call the world's first purpose-built spaceport — meaning it is not a converted airport — when a crowd of about 600 VIPs, future astronauts and media representatives began buzzing and looking skyward.
"Please welcome the future of space travel," Branson said, without skipping a beat, "to the new home of space travel."
Virgin Galactic's two-part space vehicle — a mothership aircraft toting a rocket-engine space plane between its twin fuselages — made half a dozen low passes over the spaceport before landing on the new 10,000-foot runway.
"Look at that," Gov. Bill Richardson said quietly to Branson as the two watched the coupled aircraft, the WhiteKnightTwo mothership and SpaceShipTwo, fly east over the half-built terminal and the crowd.
The occasion was the official dedication of the $29 million runway, built at the spaceport site about 25 miles southeast of Truth or Consequences. The runway was officially christened the "Gov. Bill Richardson Spaceway" by a vote of the state Spaceport Authority board Friday.
"You are standing on the foundation of America's new commercial spaceflight industry," Authority executive director Rick Homans told the crowd, "and you are witnessing history, the beginning of America's second space age, right here in New Mexico."
The dedication also provided an opportunity for the state and Virgin Galactic, the spaceport's anchor tenant, to let visitors see how the iconic terminal-hangar facility is taking shape. The 110,000-square-foot structure, designed to resemble Virgin Galactic's eye logo from the air, is expected to be completed by mid-2011.
"It's amazing," said Bill McCamley, a Democratic candidate for the Public Regulation Commission who, as Doña Ana County commissioner, was a vocal proponent of a county sales tax increase that is helping to finance the $212 million project. "Here's a public-private partnership, it's creating something new, creating something that's never been done before. I am so happy right now."
The last time Branson visited the site was in December 2005 when he and Richardson announced a unique partnership between Virgin Galactic and New Mexico taxpayers.
In broad terms, the state agreed to build a spaceport from the ground up, the first such project in the world, and Branson agreed to make Virgin Galactic the spaceport's anchor tenant.
In a roughly two-hour round-trip flight costing $200,000 per ticket, Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo aircraft will fly to an altitude of 50,000 feet and release the spaceship, which will then rocket to the edge of space. The six passengers will experience zero gravity and get an eye-popping view of Earth for several minutes before the spaceship glides back to the spaceport.
Branson will be among the first passengers, along with his mother and father and two of his children.
For himself and other passengers, Branson said, "Our journey to Spaceport America will likely be one of the most important moments of our lives."
More than 380 customers have paid deposits on Virgin Galactic flights, with receipts in excess of $50 million. Branson said when passenger-carrying flights begin, in nine to 18 months, the spaceport will probably see one flight per week during the first year. The spaceport will house at least two motherships and five rocketplanes or spaceships. The company hopes to eventually schedule three flights per day.
"When Richard and I shook hands five years ago and embarked on this project, there were a lot of unknowns and quite frankly a lot of risks for both Virgin and for the state of New Mexico," Richardson said. "But we took the risk, and here we are today standing on the runway."
Igor Kutsenko, the 36-year-old head of a Moscow-based advertising agency, said he has reserved seats for himself, his mother and father and a business partner.
"It looks impressive," Kutsenko said of the spaceport terminal. "This one looks like a spaceport should look like. It's exciting."