Inside Virgin Galactic’s Gateway to Space (VIDEO)

Yesterday morning, Governor of New Mexico Susana Martinez, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides, and Richard Branson welcomed guests inside Spaceport America to commemorate and christen the spaceport’s main terminal hangar facility as the ‘Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space’.

Our team on the ground was on hand to capture the festivities, from the opening press conference to the Champagne toast to a spaceport tour. Check out our exclusive video for the details.

Virgin Galactic christens terminal ‘Gateway to Space’ (Photos)

The Montgolfier brothers had Paris. The Wright brothers had Kill Devil Hills. Today, Richard Branson can officially call the New Mexican desert ‘home’ for his burgeoning commercial space line.

This morning, Governor of New Mexico Susana Martinez, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides, and Richard Branson welcomed guests inside Spaceport America, to commemorate and christen the Spaceport’s main Terminal Hangar Facility as the ‘Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space’.

In front of a crowd of 800 journalists, future astronauts, and team members responsible for the design & construction of the VSS Enterprise, the spacecraft made a ‘captive carry’ fly-by with mothership White Knight II, before landing on the 10,000 ft. long runway and docking outside Spaceport America’s 47,000 sq. ft hangar.

As flight tests ramp up toward a speculative launch date in 2012 or early 2013, the Spaceport will now serve as the home base of operations for those working to make Virgin Galactic a reality; a date that for some, can’t come soon enough.


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Over 400 passengers have already put down a deposit of $20,000 toward the $200,000 ticket price to be among the first tourists to venture into suborbital space. For these future astronauts, the experience is much more than just taking a trip to space.

At events like the one today, it’s a chance to network and be a part of an elite group that is helping Branson write the next chapter of aviation history. In some ways, it’s the ultimate traveler’s club – a chance of a lifetime for those that can afford to join. Future passengers from all across the globe come to events put on by Virgin Galactic to mingle with former NASA astronauts, politicians, and the Branson family.

Branson’s hope is that it won’t be long before tens of thousands of ordinary humans brave enough to make the trip will be able to afford the flights; and he will have helped forge an entirely new tourism industry.

When operations commence, which could be as soon as 2012 or 2013, passengers will go through a three day training experience at Spaceport America. They’ll undergo g-force testing, weightlessness simulations, and health checks to ensure that they’re fit enough to make the trip to 361,000 ft. Once aboard the 6-seater craft, they will experience up to 4g’s as they rocket toward an apogee inside the thermosphere, before experiencing up to 5 minutes of weightlessness.

There is still much to be done before the passenger experience in New Mexico is fully worked out, but Branson promises that it won’t disappoint. While Galactic has yet to prove itself as a full-fledged business, their customers are excited and there is a sense of enthusiasm from the company as they continue to expand an already impressive list of staff members.

The date on which we’ll witness a powered flight is still uncertain, but it seems as if Branson is determined to keep passing milestones on the way to the history books at a very steady rate; and now with a new home for Galactic, the only way forward is up.

Dirt-Road Driving To Explore Spaceport America


In the wilderness of New Mexico, set in the dry, scrubby desert under a crystalline pale blue sky, is a construction site with a bombastic and cartoonish name, incomplete but already a monument to the hubris of interstellar exploration or maybe to tax-payer financed public-private partnerships of indeterminate future success.

Spaceport America, a beautiful collection of Googie-inspired hangars and control centers at the foot of the San Andres Mountains, will soon be the fully operational home of Virgin Galactic, the Richard Branson-backed tourism concern that plans to shoot rich people into sub-orbital space for $200,000 a ride.

The Spaceport could be the next Cape Canaveral, drawing tourists and geeks to see the future of manned (and unmanned) American space exploration. It could be a massive government boondoggle, a wasted $209 million investment that never pays back the people of New Mexico who financed its construction. Or it could be something entirely different. So I drove north out of Las Cruces to see it for myself.

Traveling the American Road – Spaceport America


My guide for the trip, David Wilson, a spokesman for the Spaceport, met me early in the morning in Las Cruces, before the sun started pummeling southern New Mexico with heat. In the cool air, refueling our SUVs before the trek into the desert, he filled me in on the back story of the Spaceport.

With open airspace and rocket scientists aplenty–White Sands Missile Range is just 30 minutes from Las Cruces–the Spaceport is seen by boosters as a job-creation engine in a state badly in need of high-paying, high-tech jobs. As a launch facility, the Spaceport has already hosted 13 rocket launches, even as construction continues on the main terminal, where Virgin Galactic will run its consumer-friendly show.

David and I drive north, turning off the interstate onto an improved dirt road toward Upham, New Mexico, a whistle stop ghost town that’s still on maps, despite having been abandoned by its few residents. We ford mud holes, drive through ranches, steer around cattle and eventually roll up to a guard shack that looks like something out of X-Files. There are a few high clouds in the sky and the heat is already building as our names are ticked off a very imposing clipboard.

Visitor badges in hand, we drive down to the apron, in awe of the main Foster + Partners terminal, in glass and hand-formed steel, cut to mimic the landscape, its pre-weathered finish looking like Richard Serra sculpture turned architectural element. David walks me through the site, where visitors can watch Virgin astronauts prepping for missions, where launch commanders will monitor spaceflights, where offices of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority will soon be located, where the fuel dump sits, isolated safely off in the distance, nowhere near the multi-million dollar 10,000-foot runway that could service the Space Shuttle, if it still flew.

It feels small, this place in the desert where grand dreams are soon meant to thrive. It’s certainly more intimate than Kennedy Space Center, where many spectators–myself included–consider themselves lucky to be 10 miles from the launch pad. But can it, and its silly name, really inspire us the way JFK and Alan Shepard and the Saturn V and the Space Shuttle did?

NASA administrator Charles Bolden says his agency is committed “to continuing human spaceflight and taking the necessary–and difficult–steps to ensure America’s leadership in human spaceflight for years to come.” But Spaceport America, almost complete and planning its first manned Virgin Galactic spaceflight, asks us if the private sector can do it better. They just need a $209 million investment from New Mexico to get off the ground.

Virgin Galactic releases first “feathered flight” video

Historical implications aside, one of the most impressive and important aspects of Richard Branson’s upcoming private space line is its distinct mode of atmospheric re-entry.

Thanks to a breakthrough design by legendary aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is one of the first craft to utilize a technique known as “feathered flight” to acheive a safer, more stable method of passing through the various layers of Earth’s atmosphere. After rocketing to the lower reaches of the thermosphere, SpaceShipTwo is designed to rotate its wings by 65

°, so that the body of the craft creates a very large amount of drag while the wings remain upright to guide the ship and provide a type of fail-proof stability. The high drag combined with the low weight of the craft ensures that surface temperatures remain low, preventing any risk of burning up upon re-entry.

On May 4th, the Virgin Galactic & Scaled Composites team performed the first test flight in which the VSS Enterprise deployed the feathered configuration; proving that the design is stable and ready for testing at higher velocity. Today, Virgin Galactic released the official video of the test flight, which provides a stunning look at the feathering in action.

The VSS Enterprise has flown solo seven times since it’s public debut in December of 2009, and will likely begin powered test flights in the second half of 2011. Finally convinced it’ll be safe? Then head on over to the Virgin Galactic website and reserve your spot for only $20,000.

Space race brings trip around the Moon by 2015

space race
We’ve heard of suborbital flights being booked by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, those have been in the works for quite some time. So have various plans for a replacement vehicle for the retiring space shuttles. Now, the news about space travel brings us to the Moon with a flight around the moon available coming up as soon as 2015 says one company already in the business.

Space Adventures based in Virginia is the only company to have booked and offered commercial space travel, delivering astronauts to the International Space Station.

“The moon holds a special place in all of our hearts. It’s a symbol of the space future that humanity wishes for, a symbol of our curiosity, and something that we see every night. When the private moon mission launches, the eyes of the world will truly be upon those people, and it will truly be an extraordinary event,” Eric Anderson of Space Adventures told International Business News.

The price tag?

A round-trip for two looks to be right at $150 million.

Back in 2009, Gadling reported on a NASA focused on commercial space travel with a plan to spend $50 million of economic stimulus cash from the feds into putting the average traveler into space. Then, commercial space travel was not much more than a dream or something for a “weird news” column.

Now, as plans develop on several fronts, space travel may very well be within reach for everyday people…who have $150 million to spare.

Flickr photo by *L*u*z*A

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