Yesterday marked the opening ceremony for the highly-anticipated Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space, the world's first commercial space launch pad. The spaceport, which is located in a remote region of southern New Mexico, hopes to bring economic development, tourism and educational opportunities to the area. United Kingdom-based Foster + Partners designed the 120,000 square-foot building in conjunction with URS Corporation and local New Mexico architects SMPC. The building meets LEED Gold standards for environmental quality and attracted over 800 guests at its opening ceremony.
The flight of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo celebrated the recent completion of the main hangar and visitor’s experience center. Sir Richard Branson was on hand to lead the ceremony and was joined by Governor Susana Martinez, astronaut Buzz Aldrin and 150 international Virgin Galactic customers who have already reserved their spot in the first space flights. Over 450 people have signed up for flights which are expected to take place in 2013. Flights cost around $200,000, and Branson and his two children will be on the first flight.
Construction costs for the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space are estimated at about $209 million with funds coming US taxpayer dollars. Virgin Galactic has signed a 20-year lease agreement with the State of New Mexico’s Spaceport America with promises that the industry will create jobs and educational opportunities for the local community.
Jobs have already been created during the construction phase. Local materials and regional construction techniques were used to construct the three-story building. Energy efficiency was another important factor with geothermal heating and cooling systems and natural ventilation being integral components of the design.
While the building meets LEED Gold standards, the geographic location of Spaceport America also has several environmental benefits. The stable weather and relatively dry climate make it ideal for launches. Also, its altitude at 4,600 feet above sea level gives it a clear advantage of making the first mile of vertical travel virtually “free.” It shares a restricted airspace with the neighboring White Sands Missile Range and is situated in an area with a history of aeronautics research and innovation.
The spacecrafts being designed by Virgin Galactic leave a far smaller carbon footprint than traditional spacecraft. A much quieter air launch system avoids the need for large, dirty ground-based rocketry. The carbon composite construction of the body is four times the strength of steel but a fraction of the weight. The hybrid rocket motor uses non-toxic fuels that have a short burn time thanks in part to the air launch. The descent and landing require little power and the vessel is fully reusable. New technologies promise to continue building upon this relatively energy efficient system.
Besides commercial space tourism, Virgin Galactic also hopes to build on educational and research opportunities. Last week NASA’s Flight Opportunity Program awarded the company a contract with a potential value of $4.5 million. Educational institutions such as Purdue University, Space Florida, the Challenger Center for Space Science Education and Southwest Research Institute have already expressed support for research initiatives that will inspire students.
While Virgin Galactic will likely be the main tenant of Spaceport America, several other industry leaders have expressed interest in using the facility. UP Aerospace, Virgin Galactic, Armadillo Aerospace, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and MOOG-FTS hope to get involved someway with the new commercial spaceflight business. Hopefully with the amount of businesses pursuing this new endeavor, prices will become reasonable enough so that the mainstream can enjoy the adventures of space travel.