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 VSS Enterprise makes its first “Captive Carry Flight”

It was just 4 months ago when the Gadling team visited the Mojave Desert space port to witness the unveiling of the VSS Enterprise – the actual Virgin Galactic plane that will be flying paying guests into space on the first commercial space flight service.

Yesterday was another huge milestone for the team – they took the VSS Enterprise for its first “captive carry flight”. This flight involved flying the mothership and the spaceship, without disconnecting. In future flight tests, they’ll fly both craft, and let the spaceship glide back to earth.

Tests will continue well into 2011, prior to the start of actual commercial space operations. The starting price for tickets is $200,000, with a minimum deposit of $20,000.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo (Photos)

December 7th, 2009; there’s a good chance it won’t be remembered as a milestone in history. But it can certainly be marked as a major stepping stone in the human endeavor of space exploration.

At roughly 5.30pm on Monday evening, Richard Branson, Burt Rutan, Governor Schwarzenegger and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson proudly rolled out Virgin Galactic’s first test flight ready spacecraft. After the dramatic unveiling, the sub-orbital, eight passenger vehicle was promptly christened as the VSS Enterprise – a homage to a handful of historical vessels that have shared the same name.

The entire event was done in true Branson fashion – lights, music, and plenty of beautiful people. Over 800 press, crew and “future astronauts” were in attendance, despite high winds and occasional snow flurries at the remote Mojave Spaceport.

Full photo coverage after the break.

Governors Bill Richardson and Arnold Schwarzenegger were on site to emphasize their appreciation of Virgin Galactic’s venture; all future test flights will be performed in 2010 out of Mojave, California and the first official launches will take place at Spaceport America, in New Mexico. Governor Richardson has made a large investment in bringing this new industry to his state, and even called for President Obama to make a bigger investment in the future of space tourism.

The crowd in attendance was dominated by citizens that have already set down the full $200,000 deposit to secure their flights into space; a diverse group of enthusiasts that ranges from the wealthiest of entrepreneurs to humble schoolteachers.


After the press conference, the crowd gathered on the chilly Mojave Spaceport runway to witness the rolling out of SpaceShipTwo, carried by Virgin MotherShip Eve. The event was cut short however, due to high wind advisories in the area that threatened the lavish, inflatable domes and tent structures set up by Virgin Galactic for the event.

Critics claim that since the VSS Enterprise will only be making sub-orbital flights, humans are still a long way off from lengthy space travel. The current power that the craft is capable of will need to be scaled up to nearly 60 times before full orbital potential is possible.

Nonetheless, Virgin promises that the first flights aboard the craft will be an experience unlike any other – with full 3-day training sessions for all passengers and over 6 minutes of complete weightlessness on the flights. The development also opens up the floodgates for future progression in rapid inter-continental travel and cost efficient methods of putting satellites or heavy equipment in space.

As spacecraft designer Burt Rutan has said, “We need affordable space travel to inspire our youth, to let them know that they can experience their dreams, can set significant goals and be in a position to lead all of us to future progress in exploration, discovery and fun.”

Virgin Galactic has undoubtedly launched us into that exciting period; but while the VSS Enterprise may not be mankind’s leap into full-orbital spaceflights, it’s certainly the necessary stepping stone for space tourism and proof that private groups have the capability and support to forever change our perception of travel.

For more information about booking flights into space, you can check out Virgin Galactic’s website, or Virtuoso’s select list of Accredited Space Agents.

Virgin Galactic unveils SpaceShipTwo

It’s a rainy, stormy day at the Mojave Spaceport – but it hasn’t stopped over 800 press, crew, and future space tourists from gathering for Virgin Galactic’s unveiling of their highly anticipated SpaceShipTwo commercial spacecraft.

This evening Richard Branson, Burt Rutan, and the Virgin Galactic team will be showing off the revolutionary machine that will be sending citizens into space within the next two years. Most of the guests in attendance tonight have already paid the $200,000 ticket price to take the suborbital flight. Another 82,000 have expressed interest in taking future flights as well – a healthy sign for what some consider a risky business venture.

Gadling is on site – bringing you exclusive video and photo of the event as it unfolds, so check back for more updates from the desert to witness a small step for mankind in the making. More photos of the SpaceShipTwo model on display after the break…