Belfast Telegraph

Monday 14 July 2014

Work finishes on spaceport's runway

WhiteKnightTwo flies over the Spaceport America terminal-hangar facility in New Mexico. (AP)

Virgin Galactic's Sir Richard Branson and prospective astronauts have gathered in the southern New Mexico desert to celebrate the completion of the runway at the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport.

Spaceport America is the world's first facility designed specifically to launch commercial spacecraft.

The celebration of its nearly two-mile long runway comes less than two weeks after another major step for Virgin Galactic: the first solo glide flight of its space tourism rocket ship.

Sir Richard called it an emotional and historic day, and said he expects flights for space tourists to begin in nine to 18 months - and he will be among the first passengers.

Stretching across a flat dusty plain 45 miles north of Las Cruces, the runway is designed to support almost every aircraft in the world, day-to-day space tourism and payload launch operations.

Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant of the taxpayer-funded spaceport and plans to use the facility to take tourists on what will first be short hops into space.

State officials want to add companies for other commercial space endeavours, such as research and payload delivery missions.

Virgin Galactic's bullet-shaped spacecraft - SpaceShipTwo - also made an appearance, carried high over the barren landscape by its special jet-powered mothership, White Knight Two. Both vehicles made several passes over the spaceport as they returned to Earth.

Tickets for suborbital space rides aboard SpaceShipTwo cost $200,000 (£127,000). The two-and-a-half hour flights will include about five minutes of weightlessness. Some 380 customers have already made deposits totalling more than $50 million (£31.9 million), Virgin Galactic officials said.

Until now, space travel has been limited to astronauts and a handful of wealthy people who have shelled out millions to ride Russian rockets to the International Space Station.

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