Article Courtesy of the Las Cruces Sun-News
By Diana M. Alba
UPHAM, N.M. – Bottle of champagne in hand, British billionaire and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson on Monday christened Spaceport America’s diamond feature – a $32.5 million terminal-hangar that one day will house the vehicles belonging to his fledgling spaceline – by rappelling off the building’s face, accompanied by a troupe of aerial dancers. It was Branson’s first visit to the under-construction, southern Sierra County spaceport since October of last year, when state officials formally dedicated a 10,000-foot runway.
Appearing with Branson for the first time was Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who took office at the start of the year. U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., and astronaut Buzz Aldrin, too, were among a crowd of about 720 dignitaries, spaceflight gurus and future suborbital-space tourists who attended the ceremony.
Martinez – who sparked concern among spaceport supporters at the start of her tenure because of her abrupt personnel changes – said the spaceport was at the start of the “second space age” and touted the 550 permanent jobs it will create. She said the number that could grow to 2,000. “It’s about jobs and helping people meet new challenges and fulfill dreams,” she said.
Branson dubbed the three-story, sting ray-shaped structure the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space,” a name previously OK’d by state spaceport officials.
Prior to the rappelling act, Branson and spaceport officials lauded the terminal-hangar building for its design. Branson said it was notable not only for its impending use as a home to spacecraft but also its environmental friendliness. He described it as “one of the most beautiful, striking buildings you’ve ever seen.” “It’s a 21st century building for a 21st century business,” he said.
Several speakers highlighted an involvement of space researchers with Virgin Galactic flights, a growing market.
Construction of the spaceport’s first phase, including the terminal-hangar, runway and operations building, is about 93 percent done, officials have said. A second phase, which includes constructing visitors’ centers and paving a southern road to the remote site, is underway.
Making its second visit to the spaceport was the two-vehicle system, under development in Mojave, California that will launch from Spaceport America, possibly in 2013.
Future astronauts gather
Present Monday were more than 150 of the future astronauts – the largest gathering of future astronauts in history, said George Whitesides, president and CEO of Virgin Galactic.
Master pastry chef Eric Lanlard of the United Kingdom, the 117th spaceflight customer, expects to be aboard the 30th flight, once operations begin. He bought a ticket, he said, because of the historic nature of the venture. The visit was his first to the spaceport, though he’d previously seen the vehicles in Mojave, Calif. He described the hangar building as “impressive.” “This is where it’s all going to happen,” he said.
Construction on the terminal-hangar should be done in late November, nearly a year behind schedule, spaceport officials have said. State spaceport authority member David Buchholtz said the delayed schedule would be more concerning if Virgin Galactic already had finished its vehicle development, which it hasn’t. He said he’s pleased with progress made in the last month. “Ultimately our major job in the near- to mid-term is to make sure the construction is finished,” he said.
The event started Monday morning with a take-off, demonstration and landing of WhiteKnightTwo, the Virgin Galactic aircraft that will carry SpaceShipTwo aloft for a mid-air launch, where it will rocket tourists to suborbital heights. In all, about 460 people to date have booked spaceflight seats, plunking down deposits totaling $58 million, Virgin Galactic officials said.
Spaceport officials have said they expect Spaceport America to boost tourism across southern New Mexico.
Virgin Galactic ticketholder Craig Curran of Rochester, N.Y., who’s also one of 65 space travel agents certified by the spaceline, said while other spaceport proposals exist, Spaceport America is on par to become the first operational commercial spaceflight facility in the world and that fact in itself will attract visitors. “As far New Mexico goes and Las Cruces, there’s no question: ‘This is the birthplace of human space travel – the average person, not just a professional astronaut or someone in the military,” he said.
Opponents of the spaceport contend it’s a waste of taxpayer money and that’s it’s subsidizing trips for the wealthy to space.
Not all in support
Invited guests only attended the event, hosted by Virgin Galactic. But at the gates of the spaceport, a handful of protesters, including one with a megaphone, caught the attention of tour buses arriving at the site. Some expressed frustration at the draining of at least one local family’s ground well, a consequence of pumping for spaceport construction. One sign read: “Occupy Spaceport.” Sierra County Sheriff Joe Baca said the protesters caused no problems.
Branson also unveiled the terminal-hangar’s new address: No. 1 Half Moon Street. The company has a noted house in London on Half Moon Street, he said.
To cap the day, six aerial dancers from the group, Project Bandaloop, tied off lines from the terminal-hangar’s second story, onto the face of a 250-foot long pane of windows that make up the building’s eastern face. Part way into their performance, Branson rappelled down and performed in the show.
Pearce said the project is not only an economic engine, but it’s also at the forefront of a new venture for humanity. “We have here a renewal of the human spirit that I think is going to infect the world,” he said.
Martinez told Branson she’s considering a new possibility. “I may have to add it to my bucket list – to fly into space,” she said.