LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
NASA's final shuttle mission ends this week. The last flight of the Shuttle Atlantis marks the end of the U.S. shuttle program. Earlier this month, WEEKEND EDITION's Audie Cornish explained to us what the end of that program means for NASA's astronaut corps.
This week, she's back to talk about the next phase of space exploration - commercial space travel. Hello, Audie.
AUDIE CORNISH: Hey there, Linda.
WERTHEIMER: So what does NASA think about private companies getting into the space biz?
CORNISH: NASA doesn't really have a choice in the matter because President Obama has decided that the future of space travel will be taken up by private industry - that essentially, the grunt work of getting to the space station and just kind of bringing things up there should be done by private industries. And we won't have any sort of shuttle of our own to go up there. And we'll be paying Russia for rides on their space vehicles if we want our astronauts to get to the International Space Station.
WERTHEIMER: So what are the companies that are jumping into this opportunity?
CORNISH: Well, first and foremost you've got defense contractors like Boeing. You've also got aerospace contractors. Companies like SpaceX, which was founded - or co-founded by one of the founders of PayPal, who's just interested in the private space industry. And we also looked around for sort of large-scale projects, and we hit upon Spaceport America, which is actually in your home state of New Mexico.
WERTHEIMER: I envy you, that trip to New Mexico. I try to keep other people out of the state. Obviously, I failed.
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CORNISH: It is beautiful. Beautiful. I can understand why.
And Spaceport is interesting because it's essentially, an airport for spaceships. The state is taking on building this. And the goal is to design something that contractors who are trying to build the next big thing to replace the shuttle, will want to do it there in New Mexico. And also, it's going to be a hub for space tourists. So again, that totally sinks your plan of having fewer people go to your state.
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>CORNISH: So we set out on the road to the future of commercial space travel, which according to the people behind Spaceport America, begins in the tiny town of Truth or Consequences. And it was just outside the town when we noticed these little, yellow stickers - that they were in the shape of a rocket. And they were stuck to all the highway signs along the route.
DAVID WILSON (Spokesman, N.M. Spaceport Authority): It's kind of a mystery. We don't know who's putting those there.
CORNISH: It's not Spaceport?
WILSON: No. It's not the state.
CORNISH: That's David Wilson. He's the spokesman for the state of New Mexico's Spaceport Authority. He took us on a 45-minute drive deep into the desert. On the horizon, there were miles of spiky grasses and the occasional bison. The sky above was powder blue and clear of clouds.For decades, it's been the perfect place for pioneering rocket scientists.
WILSON: Robert Goddard brought his experiments and his rockets to the New Mexico deserts in the '30s for the same reasons. There's this incredible weather window; there's no population out here; and then you're a mile up from sea level. We have a saying around here: The first mile to space is free. It takes less energy to get to space from a place out here, like this.
CORNISH: Plus, they don't have to worry about planes. The airspace is restricted, thanks to the nearby White Sands military installation.
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CORNISH: The first thing you see when you pull up to the Spaceport construction site is a sign that says it will be finished in early 2011. The project is running behind schedule, and over budget, for a number of reasons. There isn't enough water, so they have to truck some in. There's no power, so they have to use generators until they can build a power station. Just one of the two highway routes is even paved.
You can see the beginnings of a 100,000-square-foot terminal rising like a turtle shell out of the dirt and sand - lots and lots of sand. But Christine Anderson sees more.
CHRISTINE ANDERSON (Executive Director, N.M. Spaceport Authority): I see a lot of tourists coming through here. We also will have a really fantastic visitors complex. We also see some other venues. This is a fantastic place to enjoy the Southwest, if they want to do nature hikes. Maybe we'll even have an art gallery of New Mexicoan art in our visitors' experience. So that's what I see. I see a hub of activity and excitement and interest.
CORNISH: Anderson is the head of the state's Spaceport Authority. She was appointed by the new Republican governor, who replaced several board members and called for audits of the authority's spending. The state has already poured in $200 million into financing Spaceport. Much of that was approved back in 2007, when New Mexico was flush with a $500 million surplus. This year, the state expects a $450 million deficit.
Now the governor wants the private sector to pick up the tab for the spaceport when state financing winds down in 2013. It's Anderson's job to get more businesses to take up residence in the spaceport so it will eventually pay for itself.
ANDERSON: Our anchor tenant is Virgin Galactic, so we already have one very strong customer coming to the spaceport. And with the ramping down, of course, of shuttle and also the tight budgets in the military side of space - so I think it's the - we're here at the right time and in the right place.
CORNISH: Now, essentially, this is going to be tourism as your anchor tenant. I have heard some people sort of say this is sort of an expensive carnival ride, you know - that we're sort of staking our job creation and all this stuff on hoping that wealthy people will want to get five minutes in space. What's your response to that?
ANDERSON: Well, that's the space tourism part, so those are the actual six passengers that get to ride in the, you know, spaceship of Virgin Galactic. But you know, we're going to have a lot of interesting other things that have to do with space, and I think people will be very excited about that.
CORNISH: Of course, not everybody is excited.
KAREN PEREZ: Karen Perez, Dona Ana county commissioner, District 3.
CORNISH: Karen Perez works for one of the two counties to vote in new taxes for the project, 25 cents on every $100 in sales. Altogether, Dona Ana citizens are investing $50 million in Spaceport. The commissioner says she was new on the job when state officials came around making their pitch.
PEREZ: You're going to see all kinds of side jobs that come in, or ancillary industry that's associated with the spaceport. And we said, really? What's that going to be? Well, payloads and electronics, places and people to work on the motors. Then we'll see, during the construction, we'll see local construction. We'll see construction jobs afterwards. We'll see local jobs. And really, what it came down to afterwards is, there's maintenance jobs. And they'll hire people locally to do janitorial work.
CORNISH: Perez says local construction firms were outbid by larger outfits - some from out of state. Meanwhile, the road to the spaceport from Las Cruces in Dona Ana County is still unpaved. Commissioner Perez says the county is physically and economically cut off from Spaceport - at least for now.
PEREZ: I think one of my biggest regrets is allowing ourselves to be rushed into an election because a lot of the information, it was very glamorous and very exciting. And there was a lot promises on jobs, again, for construction. It was the very beginning of the recession, and people were worried about how they were going to survive. And this looked like it was going to give us some sort of immediate return on our investment. We're still waiting to see a return.
CORNISH: But companies aren't wasting any time selling the dream of private space travel.
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CORNISH: One of the best known is Virgin Galactic, the private space tourism company owned by British business tycoon Richard Branson.
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>RICHARD BRANSON (Owner, Virgin Galactic): This will be a trip like no other. We'll give those that travel with us a unique and life-changing perspective of our planet.
CAROLYN WINCER (Virgin Galactic): Within 10 seconds of traveling supersonic, and within about 30 seconds of going almost three-and-a-half times the speed of sound.
CORNISH: That's Carolyn Wincer, the company's head of astronaut sales. She says more than 400 people have already signed up for the ride.
WINCER: So instantly, when the rocket motor ignites, they'll be pushed back into their seat with quite high G-forces, and there'll be all this noise with the rocket motor right behind you. And they'll do that for around 90 seconds, right up and out of the atmosphere, vertically. And very, very quickly, the sky will change color from blue through to dark blue and eventually, into black.
So�then the rocket motor shuts off and instantly, it's completely silent and instantly, they're weightless. And at that point, they can unfasten their seat belts, and they can float out of their seats and spend about four minutes floating around the cabin, enjoying that sensation of weightlessness.
CORNISH: Apparently, that sensation is worth $200,000 a ticket.
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CORNISH: Wincer took us on a tour inside the half-finished terminal for space tourists. And there's more than that going on at Spaceport. They're getting a license for a vertical launch pad as well as a horizontal runway. That could open the door to research and space trips beyond Earth's orbit. Wincer argues that turning a profit with space tourism is an important part of the plan to boost the entire private industry.
WINCER: NASA has done a fabulous job, and they will continue to do so. But it's difficult for them. They've got a limited budget and the whole universe, literally, to explore. And so I think it's absolutely right that they be left to focus on things further afield - deep space, lunar exploration - whilst the private sector focuses on the near-Earth stuff.
And I think that what happens in the private sector is if we can show that it's profitable to be in the space business, it will attract more investment, and it will enable us to more quickly develop better technology. Once you prove a concept, once you prove you can make more money out of it, it attracts more money. And the technology improves as well.
CORNISH: As Wincer ducks under construction lights and steps over piles of metal and wood, she points out the future spot of mission control. She tells us how all five Virgin shuttles will fit in the gaping space of the spaceport hanger below. What she can't tell us is when the first rocket load of ticket holders will take off.
For WEEKEND EDITION, I'm Audie Cornish.