Branson dedicates spaceport runway in US desert

The dream of rocketing tourists into space edged closer to reality yesterday, as the world's first commercial spaceport opened a runway in the New Mexico desert.

All that is left for Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic company, which will operate the flights, is more rocket testing on SpaceShipTwo and sending it into space. The British billionaire said he expects flights for space tourists to begin in nine to 18 months, and he will be among the first passengers.



"Today is very personal, as our dream becomes more real," Branson said. "People are beginning to believe now."



Spaceport America is the world's first facility designed specifically to launch commercial spacecraft.



Until now, space travel has been limited to astronauts and a handful of wealthy people who have shelled out millions to ride Russian rockets to the international space station.



Stretching across a flat dusty plain 45 miles north of Las Cruces, the nearly two-mile-long runway is designed to support almost every aircraft in the world, day-to-day space tourism and payload launch operations.



Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant of the taxpayer-funded $198 million (£126m) spaceport and plans to use the facility to take tourists on what will first be short hops into space.



State officials want to add companies for other commercial space endeavors, such as research and payload delivery, once the spaceport's terminal hanger facility is complete next year.



Branson was joined at Friday's ceremonies by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, tourists who have already paid their deposits for a seat into suborbital space and Buzz Aldrin, who walked on the moon in 1969 as part of NASA's Apollo 11 mission.



Virgin Galactic's White Knight Two — the special jet-powered mothership that will carry SpaceShipTwo to launch altitude — also made an appearance Friday, passing over the spaceport several times before landing on the new runway.



Tickets for suborbital space rides aboard SpaceShipTwo cost $200,000 (£127,000). The 2 1/2-hour flights will include about five minutes of weightlessness. Some 380 people have made deposits totaling more than £31m, Virgin Galactic officials said.



Branson, the president of Virgin Group, which counts airlines, entertainment and mobile communications among its businesses, partnered with famed aviation designer Burt Rutan on the venture.



While space tourism projects such as Virgin Galactic's receive plenty of publicity, the commercial space industry is rapidly developing with companies like SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, seeking to supply the International Space Station for NASA.



SpaceX has successfully placed a dummy payload into orbit and has contracts to lift satellites next.



Other firms, including Masten Space Systems of Mojave, California, and Armadillo Aerospace of Rockwall, Texas, are testing systems that would carry unmanned payloads to space.



Last month, Congress approved legislation that affirms President Barack Obama's intent to use commercial carriers to lift humans into near-Earth space.



"Each flight we make, we'll learn more, we'll experience, we'll open up more opportunities that we cannot even conceive of today," Branson said. "This history, we're making it right now."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office / Sales Manager

£22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones