Breaking Ground On The First Spaceport

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Out in the wilds of New Mexico, they're marketing a new kind of commercial space — as in, outer space. On Friday, New Mexico broke ground on what's billed as the world's first commercial spaceport.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Alison Stewart.

Out in the wilds of New Mexico, business leaders are marketing a new kind of commercial space, as in outer space. Yesterday, the state of New Mexico broke ground on what's billed as the world's first commercial space port.

NPR's Ted Robbins was there.

TED ROBBINS: With a little fanfare, an earthmover turned some dirt and the terminal for Spaceport America was under construction.

(Soundbite of trumpet music)

ROBBINS: All right, it was a lot of fanfare in the remote desert of southern New Mexico.

(Soundbite of applause)

ROBBINS: A couple hundred spectators, a couple dozen politicians, and future tenants, like Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic.

Mr. WILL WHITEHORN (President, Virgin Galactic): One of the reasons that New Mexico has a real place in the future of space is exactly what you see around you. It's not overpopulated.

ROBBINS: That and the sunny skies led Virgin Galactic, the British firm owned by Sir Richard Branson, to commit to headquartering here. The company says it will fly private passengers and cargo on suborbital flights within the next three years. It will use a different method than the standard rocket taking off vertically from a launch pad.

Mr. WHITEHORN: Air launch, by far the safest way to take humans and technology into space.

ROBBINS: A mothership, a jet, will take off from a runway here, fly to 50,000 feet, then release a smaller rocket-powered craft attached to one of its wings. That spaceship will rise to the black edge of the atmosphere. Passengers will peer out and feel weightlessness before gliding back down to the spaceport's 10,000 foot runway.

The mothership, called White Knight, was set to fly over the groundbreaking ceremony after taking off from California. That's what Dave Carr, who's writing a story for The New York Times Magazine, and frankly many of us were waiting for.

Mr. DAVID CARR (Journalist): So I need that ship to come in low, actually see it, and then write about it. And then for me as a journalist, it's real.

ROBBINS: But a warning light went off as the White Knight was over Arizona and it made a precautionary landing in Phoenix. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has been offered a free ticket into space. He says he'll take it after they work out the bugs.

Governor BILL RICHARDSON (Democrat, New Mexico): Well, yeah. I'll take a space flight and I plan to go up. But I want a few to go up ahead of me. Just to be safe.

ROBBINS: Leonella Burrows Deanna Birch(ph) is ready now. She is one of 300 people Virgin Galactic says have paid $200,000 to ride into space. Birch is a DNA scientist from the Soviet Union now living in California.

Ms. LEONELLA BURROWS DEANNA BIRCH (Scientist): I actually mortgaged my house. I took a second mortgage on my house to pay for my flight.

ROBBINS: And why?

Ms. BIRCH: Because it's been a dream of mine since I was three years old. It's been a dream of a lifetime, and I can ask you guys how many of you had a childhood dream and how much of that came true.

ROBBINS: Others are hoping Spaceport America will bring some economic prosperity to an area which hasn't seen much lately.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBBINS: The state says that the spaceport may create up to 4,000 jobs. It and local counties are putting up about $200 million in taxpayer money to build the terminal, runway and hangers. Virgin Galactic says it'll spend as much as 300 million. Several other aerospace companies are also locating here. The main facilities of Spaceport America could be finished by the end of next year.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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