Spaceport America Ramping Up For Projected Space Tourism Boom

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It was just over a century ago that the Wright brothers developed a flying machine that lifted them into the air, which would evolve into today's safer-than-ever airline industry that saw 37.5 million business and leisure flights last year. Considering that it was only 52 years ago that Yuri Gagarin become the first person to travel into space, the world seems poised for similar exponential growth in the space flight industry.

But where will this revolution get off the ground? In the desert of southern New Mexico, if all goes according to a handful of aerospace companies and contractors. They are looking to make Spaceport America the world's first commercial spaceport for the masses.

Spanning  18,000 acres, Spaceport America is a $200 million operational facility located next to the US Army White Sands Missile Range and owned by the state of New Mexico. The site has hosted 17 vertical launches since 2006, is scheduled to be the new testing ground for the SpaceX Grasshopper in development, and is slated to become the worldwide operational headquarters for Virgin Galactic, which plans to vault the space tourism industry into prominence. A 12,000-foot launch runway has been built and fire crews have been brought on site. Other tenants of the facility include UP Aerospace and Armadillo Aerospace alongside seasoned Lockheed Martin. Although two welcome centers for the public aren't scheduled to be completed until next year, weekly preview tours are available as are public launch viewings.

spaceport-dedicationA spaceport is the stuff that sci-fi aficionados and tech enthusiasts everywhere have only dreamed of, but because spaceflight has been firmly in the hands of government agencies, the path to space was a challenging one. But given NASA's retirement of the Space Shuttle program and increasing reliance on outsourcing to private firms, the time seems right for the mantle to be passed to private industry.

In recent months, a steady stream of space-related news stories and videos have enticed the public's imagination about the possibilities of space, as the technology to make routine travel safe seems to be close at hand. Just look at some of the headline-breaking space stories from the last year or so: the first private spacecraft SpaceX Dragon docks with the International Space Station, the safe landing of the Curiosity rover on MarsFelix Baumgartner's record breaking space jump from 24 miles above the Earth's surface, the formation of Planetary Resources to mine asteroids, the announcement of a 2018 mission to colonize Mars spreadheaded by the world's first space tourist Dennis Tito, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket going supersonic, and the world's first crowdfunded space telescope.

Collectively, these stories resonate with a message getting more prominent all the time: space is closer than we think.

In fact, the space tourism is expected to be a huge industry, on the order of $600 million to $1.6 billion (in a growth scenario) in 10 years, according to The Tauri Group. So it's no wonder that Spaceport America isn't the only facility under development. A variety of launch sites and spaceports have been proposed in California, Texas, and Florida as well as a handful of other states, but which one will become the Disney World of space remains to be seen.


US Launch and Spaceport Facilities (credit: FAA)

If you want to learn more about Spaceport America, National Geographic created a n hour-long MegaStructures show about it - you can find the full show unofficially uploaded by YouTube, or watch the trailer on the NatGeo site. You can also watch a New Mexico State University show from last December with the CEO of Spaceport America, Christine Anderson, and Virgin Galactic Senior Program Manager Mark Butler  discussing some of the local issues related to the spaceport's operation. Finally, here's a local TV station's take on the spaceport with some on-site footage:

[images: Spaceport America]

David J. Hill

Managing Director, Digital Media at Singularity University
I've been writing for Singularity Hub since 2011 and have been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. My interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but I'll always be a chemist at heart.

Discussion — 5 Responses

  • arpad August 23, 2013 on 6:49 am

    Not to rain on Mr. Branson’s parade but this isn’t a business model with much likelihood of repeat business. Once you’ve ridden the highest rollercoaster in the world there’s not that much in the of reasons to do it again. I also doubt there’s all that much of a potential clientele that has both the inclination and the money to ride Mr. Branson thrill ride. Enough, obviously, to convince Branson to sink the money he’s sunk into the project but as an on-going enterprise it seems quite limited.

    That leaves two possibilties for the future by my reckoning.

    Branson may see Spaceship II/White Knight II as the heir to the Concorde.

    That would be in keeping with his Virgin Airlines’ business but would allow Branson to offer what wealthy individuals lost with the ending of Concord service – speed.

    First class is certainly more comfortable and luxurious then coach but it’s not a lick faster and the Concord proved that there’s an on-going market for fleetness of wing. But the technology supersonic flight is prohibitively expensive so rather then the swift development of practical supersonic transport we got the Concord which never made a profit and was mothballed when the French and British governments got tired of subsidizing travel for rich people.

    Virgin Galactic holds the realistic promise of changing that situation by making high speed intercontinental flight commercially feasible.

    The big question is how close is Spaceship II to being able to deal with the demands of trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific passanger travel? I don’t know nor do I have the background to make an educated guess. Perhaps someone from could explore the question?

    • jrod arpad August 24, 2013 on 2:03 am

      Reasonable analysis, but I disagree on one point:

      If I had the money, I would happily ride “the highest rollercoaster” up to space every single week if I could!

      • arpad jrod August 26, 2013 on 7:04 am

        Thanks and your money, your choice.

  • Collin Smith August 26, 2013 on 12:27 am

    the problem is that its being proposed as a thrill ride more than anything and to make matters worse the current global economic status isn’t what Mr. Branson was planing for. I feel if this has any prayer of success it has to be marketed as not only a thrill but a much faster way to travel internationally, there are plenty of millionaires out there who would use space travel a couple of times a year if they needed to be across the globe in a flash to handle emergencies or any other matter which requires personal interaction. If this stays a thrill ride well then I’m afraid this Branson dude is going to back out of the whole thing and leave the tax payers of New Mexico with the 28 million dollar visitors center to nowhere that has nothing but dust covered windows and sticky floor from all the champagne ceremonies.

  • Earthrise Space Foundation October 22, 2013 on 12:28 pm

    Do you think after this, space tourism will expand? Maybe take people to the Moon, or further?