By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 15, 2005
SANTA FE, N.M., Dec. 14 -- With sky-high ambitions and a stratospheric price tag, New Mexico committed Wednesday to building the world's first commercial "spaceport," a 21st-century airport to serve scheduled flights carrying passengers and cargo on suborbital spaceflights.
Gov. Bill Richardson (D) said the state expects to start construction in 2007 on a $250 million facility that will initially be used by British entrepreneur Richard Branson to carry passengers on his proposed Virgin Galactic airline. Virgin is accepting reservations now for sightseeing spaceflights that are scheduled to begin in late 2008.
Branson said that nearly 100 people have paid the $200,000 price to reserve a seat on his planned SpaceShipTwo flights, and thousands more have sent deposits. He said Virgin expects to be launching three seven-passenger flights per day over New Mexico by 2010. The planes are to be equipped with extended seat belts to allow passengers to float in zero gravity.
But Richardson expressed hopes for the spaceport -- to be constructed on the high desert near the White Sands Missile Range -- that soar far beyond Branson's sightseeing trips.
The state's preliminary plans include three intersecting runways and two towers for rocket launches. The terminal will be underground. The governor predicted cargo service from New Mexico to Paris in "a couple of hours" and "orbital hotels" where space fliers could take a vacation of cosmic dimensions.
Richardson said the state government will pay about half the construction cost, in the range of $130 million, with the remainder to come from local and federal governments. Legislative leaders said the funding will almost surely be approved. With record tax revenue from a booming energy industry, New Mexico is predicting a budget surplus of about $1 billion this fiscal year.
"This commitment demonstrates that New Mexico is a state that embraces entrepreneurs, adventurers, pioneers and risk takers," Richardson said.
It is also a state that has produced a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 -- Richardson. The 58-year-old Hispanic governor is working to portray himself as a "different kind of Democrat" who is willing to work with the private sector on daring initiatives, his campaign planners say. Branson suggested that Richardson's gamble on the spaceport could pay political dividends.
"I know a little bit about branding," said the 55-year-old billionaire, who turned a single record store on London's Oxford Street into a global conglomerate of entertainment, communications, airline and railroad companies, all bearing the Virgin brand, "and I think this state, and the governor, will be recognized for a love of adventure, for being willing to take a chance."
Branson said his tourist missions will use planes modeled after SpaceShipOne, the plane designed by American Elbert L. "Burt" Rutan that won the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million award for the first commercial manned flight to space.
The Virgin SpaceShipTwo plane will be hooked to a larger plane that will take off horizontally from a runway. At an altitude of about 10 miles, the craft, with two crew members and seven "passenger astronauts" aboard, will rocket virtually straight up to an altitude of 62 miles or higher. Commercial jets fly about seven miles high.
Passengers are expected to experience about five minutes of weightlessness during the 2 1/2 -hour flight. The passenger ship will make a standard runway landing upon return to the spaceport.
Branson said he hopes to begin scheduled suborbital trips in late 2008. The New Mexico facility will not be finished by then, so Virgin Galactic will operate from a desert airstrip in Mojave, Calif., until the spaceport is finished. Branson said his customers will receive Virgin frequent-flier miles, but not many because the flight is essentially up and down.
The spaceflights will give new meaning to waiting at the airport. Passengers will be required to arrive three days before takeoff for training sessions.
Virgin said four states -- Florida, Texas, California and New Mexico -- competed to be the launchpad for the space tourism business.
Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn said New Mexico was chosen because of its dry, clear climate, its altitude and its large tracts of empty land without cities nearby. "To have nobody on the ground under the flights . . . will be helpful for liability-insurance reasons," he said.
The other advantage for Virgin is that the state is giving Branson's airline a new airport for very little cost. Virgin Galactic has agreed to pay rent of $1 million per year for 20 years for a facility that will cost about $250 million. New Mexico's commitment, Whitehorn said, should help convince Virgin's customers that the spaceflight business is a serious endeavor.
The spaceport will be located on 27 square miles near the desert town of Upham, in the southern part of the state, east of Truth or Consequences. The site is in the district of a Republican leader in the state Senate, a political fact that is expected to grease passage of funding for a Democratic governor's initiative.
"We'll get this through the legislature, that's a promise," said Ben Lujan (D), the state House speaker.
Richardson cited studies showing that the spaceport could produce about 3,000 new jobs in its first five years of operation.