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Spaceport America: Not just 'rich people in space'

Crave's Nerdy New Mexico series strolls the 10,000-foot-long runway at Spaceport America, home to Virgin Galactic and a nascent hub for a new space tourism industry.

Spaceport America Virgin Galactic building
The Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space building undulates in the desert.
Amanda Kooser/CNET

When Spaceport America makes international news, it's often in conjunction with names like "Richard Branson," "Virgin Galactic," and "Ashton Kutcher." That celebrity shine is hard to ignore, but it's not the only thing happening at the spaceport.

Virgin Galactic has already sold 520 tickets for its suborbital space tourism flights, expected to start in late 2013. I'm standing in front of the epically named Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space. It's a massive building that blends into the New Mexico desert from one side and reflects Spaceport America's 10,000-foot runway from the other.

A uniquely New Mexico venture
I'm a part owner of the spaceport that is sprouting up out of the Jornada del Muerto (remember the Trinity Site location). As a tax-paying New Mexican, some of my state dues have gone to the $209 million price tag for this facility's first two phases of construction.

Pretty much the only competition for air space around here is White Sands Missile Range. When you combine 7,100 square miles of restricted airspace, a dearth of commercial aircraft, and 18,000 acres of state-owned land, you get the ideal spot for the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport.

Chances are, if you plan to blast into space as a civilian tourist within the next few years, you'll be traveling to New Mexico to do it. A planned spaceport visitor's center should be up and running by late 2013 or early 2014.

Spaceport Operations Center
The Spaceport Operations Center's back-up mission control is nicknamed "the eyebrow." (Click to enlarge.) Screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

Beyond Virgin Galactic
In the meantime, the nearly 2-mile-long runway has hosted 15 mission launches from various companies, including Lockheed Martin, UP Aerospace, Boeing, and Armadillo Aerospace, a space tourism competitor to Virgin Galactic. Armadillo expects to charge half of what Virgin Galactic does for a suborbital adventure.

The concept of a busy spaceport is hard to wrap my head around. "We want to launch to space multiple times per day. That's mind-blowing in space terms," says Aaron Prescott, business operations manager for Spaceport America.

Sure, Virgin Galactic has its fingerprints all over Spaceport America, but it's just the anchor tenant of a much larger operation. "It's more than rich people in space," says Prescott.

Eventually, the spaceport should host suborbital scientific experiments, educational missions, and the launching of cremains into space. High-speed point-to-point transportation is also on the potential menu.

On the ground at Spaceport America
My visit to Spaceport America has left me impressed with the sheer size of the operation. I have a great desire to zip my Prius at high speeds down that massive runway. The Gateway to Space building has the biggest doors I've ever seen.

There are also lingering questions here. Will this turn out to be a wise investment for New Mexico? Will it someday accommodate orbital missions? Will the TSA be patting down space tourists? Nobody seems to know the answer to that one yet. I asked.

This feels like a fitting place to wrap up the Nerdy New Mexico series. We started at the site of the first atomic bomb detonation and ended at a futurist launch place for commercial space missions. We've come a long way, baby.