Billionaire Branson Dedicates First Private Spaceport

Branson and Gov. Martinez were among the officials gathered to dedicate the world's first built-from-scratch launch station for sending people into space.

UPHAM, N.M. (AP) -- British billionaire Richard Branson was back in southern New Mexico on Monday for the dedication of the runway at Spaceport America and to get the keys to the newly completed terminal and hangar where his Virgin Galactic will stage its commercial space tourism venture.

Branson and Gov. Susana Martinez were among the officials gathered in a remote patch of desert in Sierra County to dedicate the world's first built-from-scratch launch station for sending people and payloads into space.

The hundreds attending the ceremony were treated to a flyover by White Knight TWO, the mother ship that one day will take space tourists into suborbital flights.

With custom metal paneling and massive panes of glass, the state-of-the-art terminal rises from the desert to face the nearly 2-mile runway.

The building will house Virgin Galactic's sleek spacecraft, mission control and a preparation area for space tourists who have booked suborbital flights aboard rocket ships the company is developing.

It was six years ago that Virgin Galactic and new Mexico officials reached an agreement to build the $209 million taxpayer-financed spaceport. Officials said the completion of the terminal and hangar marks another major milestone that brings the dream of rocketing tourists into space closer to reality.

Still, the question many are asking is when the first ships will launch from Spaceport America. It was Branson who once predicted the maiden passenger flight would take off in 2007.

Company officials now expect powered test flights to begin sometime next year. Commercial service will start up after the company gets a license from the Federal Aviation Administration. NASA has already signed a $4.5 million contract with the company for up to three chartered research flights.

Some of the 455 ticketholders in line to fly with Virgin Galactic were expected to be at the dedication ceremony.

Despite the long wait, fewer than 10 would-be space tourists have dropped out due to medical and other reasons, Virgin Galactic officials have said.

Tickets for suborbital space rides aboard Virgin Galactic's White Knight TWO cost $200,000. The 2 1/2-hour flights will include about five minutes of weightlessness and views of Earth that until now only astronauts have been able to experience.

Like development of the spacecraft, construction of the 110,152-square-foot terminal and hangar facility has been complicated. There were construction delays, building code problems, contractor disputes and costly change orders.

State officials have blamed the unprecedented nature of the project as well as its remote location, the lack of infrastructure and the weather.

The building was designed by United Kingdom-based Foster + Partners, along with URS Corp. and New Mexico architects SMPC.

Virgin Galactic and officials with the New Mexico Spaceport Authority are touting the design as green. Tubes running through the earthen berm surrounding part of the building help cool the interior, while natural ventilation can be used during mild seasons.