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          Front Page




N.M. To Host Launch Pad; Deal Clears Way For Space Tourism

By Andrew Webb
Journal Staff Writer
    Destination: Suborbital space.
    Price: $200,000.
    Departing From: New Mexico?
    State officials said they will announce a major agreement next week with British airline and entertainment tycoon Richard Branson, who aims to begin launching tourists into suborbital space in 2008.
    The agreement "will put New Mexico on the map as the launch pad for the new personal space flight industry worldwide," Economic Development Secretary Rick Homans said Tuesday.
    Homans declined to comment on details, but said Branson was scheduled to join Gov. Bill Richardson in Santa Fe on Dec. 14 to announce the agreement between the state and Branson's space tourism company, Virgin Galactic.
    In recent testimony to the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics in Washington, D.C., Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn said the company plans to begin operations in Mojave, Calif., then seek a second site elsewhere. Texas, Florida and New Mexico are mentioned as possible sites in published reports.
    New York Times columnist John Tierney wrote Tuesday that Virgin Galactic was "close to sealing a deal" with New Mexico.
    Homans said state officials had visited Virgin Galactic in London, and that officials from the company had made repeated visits here.
    Attempts to reach Virgin Galactic officials in London late Tuesday were unsuccessful.
    "This has been a dream of New Mexico for the last 15 years, to develop a spaceport, and also it coincides with Richard Branson's dream to develop a business to take people back and forth into space," Homans said. "I think this is one of those great occurrences for New Mexico where we're in the right place at the right time, and we're on the verge of witnessing a whole new industry develop right in front of us."
    Homans said the agreement was hashed out with the cooperation of New Mexico State University and the New Mexico Economic Development Partnership, a business recruitment organization based in Albuquerque.
    The state intends to break ground in January on a spaceport near Upham, north of Las Cruces. At least two private companies, Starchaser and UP Aerospace, have announced plans to launch payloads, such as science experiments, into space from the spaceport.
    Homans and other state officials have repeatedly touted the planned spaceport's high altitude, good weather and proximity to White Sands Missile Range's secured airspace in efforts to entice emerging private space business here.
    Virgin Galactic plans to buy five "spaceliners" from a joint venture, The Spaceship Co., which it recently created with famed aircraft designer Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites. That was the company that won the $10 million X Prize last year for launching a manned vehicle into space twice within two weeks.
    Virgin Galactic has sold 120 seats at $200,000 a ticket, and has spent $100 million developing its space tourism program, according to spokesman and "astronaut relations" specialist Ned Abel Smith.
    The ships are launched from an aircraft, use nonexplosive fuel and re-enter the Earth's atmosphere so slowly that little heat is generated, eliminating the need for protective tiles or reinforcement common to today's spacecraft.

E-MAIL Journal Staff Writer Andrew Webb