December 16, 2005

Branson Plants Flag in New Mexico for Spaceport

UPHAM, N.M. -- When adventurer Richard Branson looks out across the vast southern New Mexico desert, he sees the launch pad of a space tourism industry.

He envisions a state-built spaceport with roads, launchpads and giant runways, and customers pouring in for the chance to experience six minutes of weightlessness and a view of Earth they had only before seen in photos.

"We're going where no one has gone before. There's no model to follow, nothing to copy," the British entrepreneur said Wednesday as officials announced details of the plan to build a $225 million spaceport and a headquarters for Branson's space tourism company, Virgin Galactic.

Gov. Bill Richardson, who says he will ask the Legislature in January for $100 million over three years to begin building infrastructure for the spaceport, sees it as an investment that will draw high-wage jobs and transform the southern New Mexico economy.

The funding has yet to be approved, but leaders of the Legislature and local communities joined Richardson in endorsing the project Wednesday.

If all goes as planned, the $225 million spaceport would be built with a combination of federal, state and local money, most of it from the state. The economic benefit by 2020 could be more than $750 million in revenue and more than 3,500 jobs, according to a study by aerospace industry consulting firm Futron.

Richardson said the spaceport complex could be under construction in 2007 and open as early as 2009, and Virgin Galactic wouldn't be the only company in the area.

New Mexico officials announced in September that Connecticut-based UP Aerospace Inc. would use the site for a series of commercial suborbital space flights. British company Starchaser Industries Ltd. has also opened a Las Cruces office and says it plans to manufacture and test rockets and other space vehicles at the spaceport.

While the spaceport is under construction, Virgin Galactic would send its initial flights up from Mojave, Calif., after 50 to 60 test flights, company officials said. Branson said he and some of his family would be on the first flight.

The company already has 100 people who have paid $200,000 apiece for the experience - including actress Victoria Principal, who said Wednesday she looked forward to being on the first civilian flight.

"To me, Virgin Galactic and New Mexico make a perfect marriage," she said.

Branson, a colorful billionaire tycoon whose Virgin Group began as a record label, formed Virgin Galactic after SpaceShipOne became the first privately manned rocket to reach space last year. SpaceShipOne's designer, Burt Rutan, is expected to build five spacecraft for Virgin Galactic to use at the spaceport.

On Wednesday, Branson flew by helicopter to the vacant swath of desert at Upham, a highway exit about 45 miles northeast of Las Cruces.

He planted a Virgin Galactic flag and talked about how the location was ideal, from the clear skies, reliably dry weather and empty land available for a mammoth runway.

The planned spaceport complex would cover 27 square miles near the White Sands Missile Range, where the U.S. launched its first rocket after World War II.

Branson's company - which he said has invested $150 million in developing the project - plans to send 50,000 customers into space in the first 10 years.

The paid flights would last 2 1/2 hours and offer about six minutes of weightlessness and a view of Earth through huge windows, company officials said. Passengers would have 3 1/2 days of training in advance.

"Of all the projects I've worked on in my life and all the businesses I've started, this is by far and away the most exciting," Branson said.


Associated Press Writer Deborah Baker in Santa Fe contributed to this report.