Editor’s Notebook

Coming Alive

Spaceport America awakens to the dawn of commercial space travel


After lengthy delays, Virgin Galactic has officially moved into its Gold LEED standard Gateway to Space building at Spaceport America.

For me it all started at Holloman Air Force base in 2004 with the Ansari X Prize. Experimental space plane SpaceShipOne took the $10,000,000 prize and I was hooked. I was in Las Cruces for the 2006 Wirefly X Prize Cup and back at Holloman for the 2007 X Prize Lunar Lander Challenge.

At the New Mexico spaceport site, I was there on June 19, 2009, as Gov. Bill Richardson directed the groundbreaking in the midst of an empty desert, the Jornada del Muerto, and the first dirt was turned for the Gateway to Space (as yet unnamed). Costumed actors approached the site across the desert, dressed as Spanish conquistadors and other ancient travelers, tying the past to the present and the future.

In 2010, I watched Richard Branson dedicate the runway at Spaceport America from the podium at the earth clinging building. And there I had the first view of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo as they appeared in New Mexico over the unfinished but strong structure of the Gateway to Space.

I never doubted this dream would become a reality I would one day see. Enveloped in controversy and doubt, Spaceport has stood fast. Today regardless of the naysayers, and despite oh so many bumps in the road I still stand grateful to my various employers through the years who yet allow me to track this fancy and follow the chimera of commercial space travel in our state.

Now more than 90 employees arrive daily to the facility, filling a parking lot and bringing a bustling vibe to a once-quiet desert setting. Not only are they working, they have brought families and bought homes in Doña Ana and Sierra counties. Their children have enrolled in school.

Also arriving on the scene is WhiteKnightTwo, aka Eve, the mothership that will escort VSS Unity to the edge of space. From there, VSS Unity (named by Professor Stephen Hawking), will take commercial travelers to experience space.

Eve has found her permanent home in the Gateway to Space hangar and will return to Mojave, California, only to pick up Unity and return her home to New Mexico.

On Thursday, Aug. 15, Virgin Galactic invited media and select guests to experience the completed areas of its building, which reflects founder Richard Branson’s penchant for the luxurious – where “future astronauts” paying $250,000 a ticket will dine, train and relax as they await their ride to space.

According to a Virgin Galactic press release, “The Foster + Partners Gateway to Space facility pays homage to the past in its respect for the ancient surrounding landscape while powerfully embracing the future through energy efficiency and sustainability. It was also specifically designed to enable Virgin Galactic to create an unparalleled experience as its customers prepare for journeys of a lifetime before graduating as astronauts.”

The first floor is focused on Earth and is named Gaia, representing the points of departure and return, as well as the purpose of each astronaut’s journey. An elevated, interactive digital walkway heightens the departure experience for the future astronauts prior to boarding VSS Unity.

The second floor is named Cirrus, representing light, air and flight. It is the beating heart of spaceflight operations and is connected to the community hub of Gaia below through an atrium. The colour palette graduates from Gaia’s earth tones to lighter white and grey shades, reflecting the sky beyond. 

This is home to Mission Control, the Mission Briefing Room, the Pilot Corps and the flight operations team. The Spaceport America runway and vast skies are visible from here, allowing those guiding the mission to visually connect with the craft and weather conditions.

"This is all becoming very real," said Virgin Galactic commercial director Stephen Attenborough. "What's happening here could eventually translate into a quicker and cleaner way to get around the planet.”