A Sneak Peek at the First Commercial Spaceport | Science | Smithsonian
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The "Gateway to Space" in Spaceport America, a 4,000-square-foot gallery where visitors can watch launches. (Ian Allen)

A Sneak Peek at the First Commercial Spaceport

The hub of Richard Branson's plans for Virgin Galactic, where tourists and scientists alike take off for the great beyond

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For 300 years, explorers and settlers crossed New Mexico by way of the Camino Real trail. If you travel that route today, you can view the latest phase of human exploration: Spaceport America, the world’s first purpose-built commercial space launch facility. The sprawling 670,000-square-foot complex is the hub for billionaire Richard Branson’s company Virgin Galactic, which advertises affordable access to space for scientific missions, small satellites and tourists. At the heart of the facility is the terminal hangar “Gateway to Space,” which houses a 4,000-square-foot gallery where visitors can watch launches. The rest of the complex is due for completion next year. Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic will con­tinue test flights of the tourist vessel, SpaceShipTwo (SS2), a suborbital spaceplane that seats six passengers and two pilots. A mothership will ferry it to a launch altitude of 9.5 miles and detach itself. During the two-hour flight, the SS2 will briefly reach an altitude of 68 miles—six miles above the boundary of space. At that point, for roughly five minutes, passengers will be able to unstrap themselves and experience microgravity. The spaceplane returns to Earth by decelerating through the atmosphere and then deploying wings that allow it to glide home. To date, 529 people, including actor Ashton Kutcher, have reserved tickets, which cost $200,000 each. But Branson has said the only passengers on the inaugural commercial flight, in December 2013, will be himself and his adult son and daughter.

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