Inside the Virgin Galactic spaceport sending the mega rich into space
Richard Branson's space tourism company says it's only months away from launching a new era of commercial travel.
Eric MackContributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Finalist for the Nesta Tipping Point prize and a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
The chai latte served at Spaceport America's Gateway to Space in New Mexico is just as wonderful as the employees of Virgin Galactic promised me it would be.
Yes, the frothy sweet tea is delicious, but the signal it triggers in the pleasure center of my brain is just one part of the whole experience. The server who helms Barista Island has a mastery of not only froth, but also service and small talk. And the Island itself is an aesthetic treat, composed of a backlit, white marble countertop. The dose of caffeine and glowing surface combine to create the most warm, fuzzy and loving alarm clock imaginable.
Virgin Galactic figures this is the way your morning should start on the day you leave Earth for the first time. Richard Branson's space tourism company on Thursday said its home at the Spaceport is now operational and welcomed members of the media and dignitaries as its first official guests.
Watch this: First look inside Virgin Galactic's space passenger terminal
Barista Island is the centerpiece of the ground floor Gaia level, but my eyes are drawn toward the two-story windows that make up the east facade of the Gateway to Space building.
"It's almost making you feel weightless already," says Virgin Galactic's design director, Jeremy Brown, as he leads us down the corridor from the building's cavernous hangar and into the Gaia lounge.
The landscape on the other side of the glass is classic desert southwestern meets interplanetary future. The dark San Andres mountains backstop acres of scrubland below intense blue skies. The foreground is dominated by the wide apron, taxiway and runway where Virgin Galactic's dual fuselage carrier craft, VMS Eve, is periodically hoisting itself into the sky.
The funky double jet is flying sans the rocket-powered space plane it's designed to carry to high altitude. Today, Eve is performing touch-and-gos as part of its ongoing testing protocol in preparation for carrying commercial passengers to orbit as soon as this year.
Standing there in the middle of otherwise empty high desert and looking out onto the scene is a bit surreal. It's as if the Gateway to Space and its resplendent windows are a building-size set of augmented reality goggles overlaying this vision of the cosmic future onto a landscape that's more 19th century than 21st.
But the whole scene, complete with pilots, Virgin Galactic astronauts and operations people going about their business is as real as the warm mug of chai in my hand.
I catch Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides standing at the end of the interactive walkway between the hangar and apron that lights up with each step. I ask him the inevitable question about when the first commercial customer might get off the ground.
"This milestone (of declaring the Gateway to Space functionally operational) is big to keeping us on track," he tells me.
And on track means that Virgin Galactic's founder, Richard Branson, and its other initial passengers will be launched into orbit within months, not years.
At a press conference in May, Whitesides said commercial launches would commence within a year. He told me Thursday he's still comfortable with that projection.
Lost in the desert
Until very recently the quiet Spaceport had been the butt of jokes in New Mexico and beyond. It doesn't help that the Gateway to Space building resembles an alien ship abandoned in the desert.
Over the past 15 years, Spaceport America has gone from being a dream to a reality to a nightmare as it sat largely empty in the New Mexico desert several years after its completion in 2011.
Like so many space ventures, both Spaceport America, which is a state-owned and publicly financed facility, and Virgin Galactic have suffered cost overruns, technical difficulties and slipping timelines. The darkest moment came in 2014 when one of Virgin's rocket-powered space planes crashed in the California desert during testing, killing one of the co-pilots.
But the outlook has changed over the past several months as Virgin Galactic fully recovered from its tragic mishap and began moving its operations from the Mojave Desert to New Mexico.
"This is all becoming very real," said Virgin Galactic commercial director Stephen Attenborough.
He added that soon the VMS Eve will fly back to California to pick up VSS Unity, the spaceship commercial astronauts will actually ride in, and transport it to its permanent home at the Spaceport. Attenborough envisions that Spaceport America will be home to two carrier planes and five spaceships within a decade from now.
In a corner of the hangar, large crates store eight rocket motors the company hopes to put to future use. It'll need plenty of rocket power to work through its backlog of reservations, which it began taking 15 years ago. More than 600 passengers from over 60 countries have plunked down a deposit to ride to space with Virgin at a cost of $250,000 (£205,800, AU$368,375) per seat.
Lost in dessert
Virgin's commercial passengers will spend a few days training at the Spaceport in preparation for their roughly 90-minute journey to orbit. Then on the big day, they'll gather with family, friends, pilots and support staff here around Barista Island for a gourmet meal like the one I'm sharing with Spaceport CEO Dan Hicks in the Gaia lounge.
Hicks is a lifelong public servant who spent three decades with the US Army in leadership positions at the adjacent White Sands Missile Range before being appointed to his current gig in 2016 by the New Mexico Spaceport Authority.
Friendly and knowledgeable, Hicks can talk at length about the various launch profiles that are possible from this humble spot in the desert. He speculates that it might make sense for SpaceX to launch its rockets from here and then land them at company facilities in Texas. Same goes for Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, which also has a test facility in West Texas.
When our dessert course arrives -- a shot glass of raspberry sorbet served over a bubbling, steaming vessel of dry ice -- I ask Hicks about the criticism that the Spaceport mainly serves to subsidize rich people's space vacations with taxpayer dollars.
Watch this: Virgin Galactic announces long-awaited move to Spaceport America
"I had hoped that narrative was going away," he tells me before listing the positive economic effects the Spaceport stands to bring to a region where the poverty can often be shocking.
In Doña Ana County, where most of the few hundred people with jobs tied the Spaceport live, nearly 28 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
"It's about building a space sector," Hicks says. "It's about having companies like Virgin and Spinlaunch (another Spaceport America tenant) locating here and bringing their families."
Among the many visiting journalists and UK-based Virgin employees in the room, Hicks and I are among a very particular minority: We're both long-time New Mexico residents whose tax dollars have supported this facility over the past 15 years. And yet, this gorgeous, publicly funded building is restricted and only open to the general public during scheduled tours.
Naturally, this is par for the course for any public space facility due to security concerns, but I'm still struck that this luxurious experience and the epic chai lattes will be inaccessible to most of the people who helped pay for it.
However, Attenborough insists Virgin's vision is bigger than operating an orbital joy ride for the elite.
"What's happening here could eventually translate into a quicker and cleaner way to get around the planet," he tells me.
He foresees future competition in the space tourism sector driving down prices, opening up access and perhaps even leading to transcontinental rocket plane flights similar to what Elon Musk and SpaceX have also proposed.
"We don't have the technology right now," Attenborogh cautions, adding that 98 percent of the company's efforts are focused on its initial commercial astronaut experience. But part of the long-term vision involves reducing the journey times and environmental impact of transcontinental flight.
So perhaps one day, we'll all descend on the New Mexico desert to jet to Europe in under two hours, but for the foreseeable future a trip to space, along with the preceding delicious lattes and fancy sorbets, will remain the domain of the 1 percent.