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At Spaceport America, Jetsons dreams get ready to fly

Rocket nuts have been waiting for years for the era of space tourism to begin. Here's where it might just get off the ground.

Spaceport America, the future home of Virgin Galactic and the space-tourism industry. Foster + Partners

SPACEPORT AMERICA, N.M. -- From afar, you can't tell that the large structure on the horizon, which was designed to blend into the San Andreas mountains to the east, is the home of some of humanity's biggest aspirations.

Even on arrival, as you go through security and past a locked gate and begin to come much closer to the massive structure, you can't really tell what it is.

But there's no denying that it looks like something special. And indeed it is. This is Spaceport America, the future home of the beginning of the commercial space-tourism age, an empty spot in the New Mexico desert that will one day welcome celebrities, politicians, magnates, reporters, and others clutching their $250,000 tickets to space. Few if any would ever otherwise venture way out here, an hour into the middle of nowhere from a town called Truth or Consequence.

Because Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson's space-tourism company and the anchor tenant here, has yet to take flight, and has yet to announce a concrete date when it will, there is no shortage of skeptics who believe that New Mexico got fleeced when it put up what the Albuquerque Journal reported was $212 million to help finance Branson's commercial ambitions. That is, after all, a whole lot of money for one of the poorest states in the nation.

But out here, in the hot desert, with almost nothing else around, all the doubts in the world somehow seem inconsequential. Spaceport America is here to stay, and what it represents is nothing short of a world, perhaps far in the future, when going into space is a reachable goal, when our Jetsons dreams start to feel real. Out here in the New Mexico desert, there's a great big glass-fronted building that's nothing short of the physical manifestation of our universal yearning to climb into the skies.

From X Prize to the New Mexico desert

You can draw a straight line to Spaceport America -- philosophically at least -- from the famous Ansari X Prize competition, the $10 million purse awarded to the first private team to build a manned spacecraft capable of flying twice into space within two weeks. The winning design, dubbed SpaceShipOne, was built by Burt Rutan. It now hangs from the ceiling in the main entrance to the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Branson soon came calling, commissioning Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, to build the next generation of the spacecraft, and its launch vehicle, for what came to be known as Virgin Galactic. Once that was under way, all that was left was finding a place to base operations.

This area of the New Mexico desert offers a whole host of advantages: low humidity, generally clear weather, and perhaps most important of all, clear airspace thanks to its proximity to the US military's White Sands Missile Range.

Commissioned by the nascent New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) in 2006, the spaceport that now rises from the desert floor was designed by the famous architects at Foster + Partners, designers of structures like the Tower 2 at the World Trade Center in New York, the Millau Viaduct in France, the 30 St. Mary Axe building in London, and the future home of Apple Inc.

In addition to a 12,000-foot-long spaceway (or runway), and a small SpaceX project far from the center of operations, Spaceport America is comprised of two main buildings: the Gateway to Space building; Virgin's terminal and hangar; and the nearby space operations center, which houses the NMSA's administrative offices, as well as maintenance and support and a fire station. It also has a mission control room.

Today, the spaceport has two main tenants: Virgin and SpaceX. And there have also been a number of launches by a small company called Up Aerospace. But it's easy to see that although it has yet to conduct operations here, Virgin is the big dog on campus. After all, it occupies the entire Gateway to Space building, which can hold two WhiteKnightTwos, and five SpaceShipTwos. The company has a 20-year lease on the building.

By comparison, SpaceX -- which has been flight-testing its Falcon 9-R reusable rocket -- has just a three-year lease, with two additional one-year options. In total, Spaceport America has to date hosted 20 vertical launches.

Supporting current operations, explained NMSA Director Christine Anderson, are 33 full-time employees, and 39 part-timers. The agency, run by the state of New Mexico, is expecting to hire 18 more. For its part, Virgin has said it is ramping up its own hiring as it moves toward commencing operations. Virgin has said it plans to have as many as 80 people working at the spaceport in the near future, and that it hopes to begin flying sometime this year. But Anderson cautioned that flights will begin only when Virgin, the NMSA, and other regulators deem it safe.

Virgin's touches

Out on the runway, things are much like they are at any small airport, albeit one with 12,000 feet of beautifully flat concrete. But one thing stands out, even with no spaceships in evidence: the small beacon that at almost every airport in the world reads "A" instead has a "V." It stands for Virgin.

The Gateway to Space building is closed to all but a few. Part of that, I'm told, is because Virgin wants to maintain some sense of mystery over what's inside. As well, it wants to provide customers forking over a quarter-million dollars each a bit of exclusivity. So views of an interior lounge that will feature a restaurant, as well as a reception area for space tourists, are off limits. That's true, too, of the building's control room, and a top-level astronaut lounge.

The terminal building was designed to handle the temperature swings common to a desert area at an altitude of 4,000 feet. The roof, for example, was built to expand or contract depending on the temperature. As well, it features a metal roof under which is four inches of special white foam. There's also a rubber bladder glued down in sheets and painted with latex. The idea is that the roof needs to be able to keep leaks out, no matter how extreme the temperatures are.

What's next?

For New Mexicans and space nuts everywhere, the big question is, when will space tourism actually begin out here? Some of those in the area who are wary of the state's substantial investment in the spaceport have trouble taking solace in Virgin's $1 million annual rent, and the five-figure launch fees it will pay once operations begin. The facilities also bring in revenue through SpaceX's fees, other launches, and much less sexy things like photo shoots, and, eventually, merchandise sales.

Those who can't wait to see the space-tourism age get off the ground are eager to see Virgin's spaceships taking flight. Either way, no one knows when things will begin. And Virgin isn't saying. To Anderson, the spaceport's director, there's little question that what she called the "democratization of space" will happen. A longtime Air Force veteran with decades of work in research, development, and acquisition of weapons systems, as well as space systems, space technologies, and communications satellites, Anderson clearly has the space bug. Looking around the spaceport, she sums up what many who come here will surely think: "This is where the magic happens," she said. "They make the magic."