The World’s First Commercial Spaceport

Spaceport America opened on Tuesday with a snazzy dedication. Its sole tenant at the moment is Virgin Galactic, which has already sold hundreds of future trips to the edge of space for $200,000 a pop. It’s unclear when they’ll actually be in a position to start sending up customers, but it seems that it will be within the next couple of years. I think I’ll hold off until the price comes down a bit though…

From New Scientist:

 Over 100 of those in attendance for Virgin’s “dedication” of the hangar have already put deposits down to fly on Virgin’s SpaceShipTwoMovie Camera. They watch in awe at a test flight of WhiteKnightTwo, the plane that will help the spaceship on its way. Slung between WhiteKnightTwo’s two fuselages, SpaceShipTwo will be transported to 15 kilometres above Earth, before it breaks away and fires its engine to reach the edge of space. Six passengers and two pilots will then experience a few minutes of weightlessness on flights that will last a couple of hours.

“I think the first moment when I see the curvature of the Earth will be the really exciting part,” says David Whitcomb, co-founder of Revolutionary Tennis Innovations, who was the 186th person to sign up for the trips. “Even if the first one crashes, I’m still going.”

There are still technical hurdles to overcome before commercial trips begin. So far, Virgin Galactic has only tested SpaceShipTwo without rocket power. The rocket motor has been undergoing separate tests, and the firm hopes powered flights will begin next year.

The spaceport’s construction is funded by taxpayers in New Mexico. Promised that it will bring 2000 jobs to the area in the next five years, they have paid $209 million, via bonds. “We think it will help New Mexico,” says Judy Wallin, a local cattle rancher. After December 2013, these bonds expire and rent from Virgin Galactic is expected to pay for operations.

Christine Anderson, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, says New Mexico is the ideal place for a spaceport. As it is at an altitude of about 1400 metres, rockets need less fuel to take off than if they were starting out at sea level. The 330 clear days per year also help, as does the area’s sparse population, which means there is less chance that a crash would endanger large numbers of people.

Perhaps best of all is its location next to the 890,000 hectare White Sands Missile Range – the site of the first space flight by a rocket launched on US soil. This means the spaceport’s airspace is restricted, so no commercial aircraft fly overhead.

I find it interesting that New Mexico paid for the spaceport – that’s a big investment into a very novel and expensive industry. I can’t help but feel that $200,000 a flight is just too expensive to attract a large base of people, but if there is interest then I trust that competition and innovation will emerge to drive that cost down. In the meantime I’ll keep my eyes peeled for the first YouTube video from a Virgin Galactic flight.

If you’d like more info, here’s another article on the opening of Spaceport America: I didn’t think either article was great, so maybe in combination they suffice. 

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