340 aspiring astronauts already ticketed for space travel



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Posted on November 22, 2010 at 11:24 PM

Updated Tuesday, Nov 23 at 9:18 AM

Spaceport America

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UPHAM, New Mexico — Two hours north of El Paso, deep in the Sonoran Desert, science fiction is slowly becoming fact.

A three-story building with space-age architecture rises just above the sagebrush as drivers make their way in on a dirt road from Las Cruces.

"It's the gateway for the common guy to get to space," explained David Wilson, a spokesman for Spaceport America.

This is the world's first commercial spaceport, built specifically to send paying passengers on a sub-orbital flight.

New Mexico spent almost $200-million on it, and Virgin Galactic locked in a lease for the next 20 years.

It is where space tourism will be launched.

"We'll see flights — probably a few a week — then as things progress, Virgin will probably fly daily," Wilson said.

Spaceport America is still taking shape and is not expected to be complete until sometime next year.

The hangar holding the spacecraft will be inside the three-story terminal. Outside, that two-mile long runway is striped and ready for Virgin's launch vehicle, WhiteKnightTwo, which takes off like an airplane.

But SpaceShipTwo, which is cradled underneath, will fly 12 times higher than any airliner: 72 miles above the planet.

"SpaceShipTwo will carry six astronaut passengers and two pilots, and they'll be up there for a four- or five-minute weightlessness experience," Wilson explained. "You'll see the curvature of the Earth just like the astronauts and shuttle pilots see."

Even though Virgin Galactic won't move in to Spaceport America until next year at the earliest, seats to space are already up for sale.

"It's $200,000," Wilson said. "[Virgin Galactic] sold about 340 tickets to date. That's a lot of enthusiasm for something that hasn't even come to fruition."

At least three Dallas-Fort Worth-area travel agents are still taking reservations.

Two-hundred thousand dollars pays for three days of training at Spaceport America, then a flight to 50,000 feet before SpaceShipTwo disconnects from WhiteKnightTwo and rockets up at three times the speed of sound until the dark expanses of space finally frame the planet.

From take-off to touchdown, it's a little more than a two-hour flight.

Zero gravity lasts about five minutes.

Perhaps most fascinating is that experts predict more people will go to space in the next five years than every astronaut that has ever gone before.

To accomplish that, details have to be sorted out first: Issues like space insurance, space traffic control and maybe — most importantly — how spaceports can launch spacecraft without interfering with more traditional aircraft criss-crossing the country.

"In probably the first two years they'll be flying more people to space on the Virgin system than ever before," said Dr. Patricia Hynes, director for the new Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Tourism.

The FAA launched the Center this summer and plans to invest $10 million in it over the next decade.

"So they are putting their money where their mouth is," Dr. Hynes said. "They have made a commitment to all of us that they will enable this industry."

The Center of Excellence is a think-tank of government, industry and academia, tasked simply with setting standards and solving problems so the industry can take off. The Center and its partners have a multitude of ideas, issues and concepts to consider and overcome.

"It will mean more jobs," Dr. Hynes said. "It will mean an exciting future for young people who want to understand 'what is that ocean above us?'"

Commercial space tourism will not take away from NASA or its contractors, Dr. Hynes said, but will only add to the existing infrastructure.

Right now, only two space shuttle flights remain. By next summer, the United States will no longer have a vehicle to send its own NASA astronauts into orbit. The space agency plans to send them to space by renting seats on Russia's spacecraft until the U.S. develops a new vehicle.

No state can claim a closer relationship with space than New Mexico.

The first rockets ever to reach space blasted off from what was White Sands Proving Ground. Research continues there.

The region has a stable climate and good weather, Wilson added.

Soon, Spaceport America could be the culmination of it all. The building and vehicles will dramatically shorten the distance to space.

For aspiring astronauts with money to burn, it is a dream come true in the desert.

Email: jwhitely@wfaa.com