The future is crouching toad-like in the southern New Mexico desert in the form of an 18,000-acre spaceport. The initial round of construction on the world’s first purpose-built commercial rocket ship launching center is scheduled to be completed in January. The rest of it should be built by late 2013.
Spaceport America is financed by $209 million in taxpayer money. Funding runs out in two years. After December 2013, all operations must be entirely revenue driven, says Christine Anderson, executive director of New Mexico Spaceport Authority.
That’s where the operator comes in: Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. “They (Virgin Galactic) are certainly a big part of raising revenue because we have a 20-year lease with them,” Anderson says. “Also they are anchor tenants, so they’ll be flying all their flights out of Spaceport America.”
Anderson says NASA and the Department of Defense have used the facility for test launches, and NASA has helped fund Virgin Galactic and Armadillo Aerospace launches. In July, NASA launched its final space shuttle mission [“The Last Shuttle,” July 14-20, 2011] and chief Charles Bolden declared that the future of human spaceflight lay with private firms. The spaceport tailors NASA technology to customer needs, Anderson adds.
Although an exact timeline has not been established for the first commercial flights, Virgin Galactic has already sold 450 tickets for a two-and-a-half-hour suborbital flight at 350,000 feet. The flight costs $200,000 per person. Plenty of people drawn to explore the spaceport wont be able to afford intergalactic sightseeing, but Anderson says she's hopeful the facility, along with an educational visitor’s center, will boost tourism in the region. “We tend to think about rich people going into space, but there are also educational and job-creating opportunities for everyday people,” she said at a meeting for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics on Thursday, Nov. 17.
In addition to a projected 2,000 jobs directly relating to the spaceport, increased tourism demands accommodation. Hatch, N.M. trustees voted mid-November to annex 300 acres of land for a welcome center that will bus tourists 30 miles to the spaceport.
Anderson says she's concerned about a law in New Mexico: the Space Flight Informed Consent Act. Under it, participants in space tours sign a form promising not to hold the flight operators liable in event of an accident. But it says nothing about manufacturers. Texas, Florida and Virginia have already modified their consent forms to protect the suppliers, and New Mexico runs the risk of falling behind, Anderson says. “It’s really incredibly important we get that covered. I know two companies already have said we’re not going to move there unless you get that,” she says. “We want to be competitive, and we’ve already spent $209 million on the spaceport, so we want to take care of our investment.”