Soon enough you won't need to go through NASA's grueling astronaut training to make it into Earth's orbit. Long the vision of suborbital spaceline operator Virgin Galactic, the world's first purpose-built commerical spaceport is slated to be completed by 2011, and its construction is finally taking shape.
To be called Spaceport America, the site is located in New Mexico some 30 miles east of the town of Truth or Consequences and 45 miles north of Las Cruces. MSNBC reports that the spaceport's impressive runway is no longer the stuff of graphics and computer models, already well under construction and expected to be finished by summer.
The runway is the critical centerpeice of the whole project. Initially designed to measure 10,000 feet long by 200 feet wide, the tarmac will handle all horizontal launch space and air operations at the spaceport. As its purpose expands, so will its design.
"The longer term view is to widen the airfield to 300 feet by 15,000 feet which would make it one of the most capable airfields in the world," noted Steve Landeene, executive director for the New Mexico Spaceport Authority. That would make it at least comparable to NASA's Shuttle Landing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which handles landings from the space shuttles.
One of the unique elements of Spaceport America's runway is that it sits next to White Sands Missile Range and has the option of flying in full restricted airspace or the national airspace. Unlike some other runways used for test flights of commercial spacecraft designs, Virgin Galactic will have exclusive use of the airfield at Spaceport America, guaranteeing a clear runway.
"The availability of clear airspace, low population density, clear weather, and high elevation all make Spaceport America a unique place to perform space launch activities," Landeene emphasized.
Landeene also believes that Spaceport America is strategically positioned and designed to avert any concerns over its adequacy and safety for ticket-holding passengers. Since it's within the 30-mile vicinity of three other airports, in neighboring Hatch, Truth or Consequences, and the White Sands Missile Range, there are plenty of additional landing options under certain conditions.
Furthermore, a cross-wind runway is also slated to be constructed so that returning spacecraft can land from multiple angles. That's a particularly important feature for suborbital craft, since they are committed to a landing in about 35 minutes at best or 15 minutes in a worst-case scenario of no rocket firing and having to land heavy.
Virgin has already collected a $200,000 per-person fee from the first 300 passengers, though once the infrastructure and technology advances, that hefty price tag should fall considerably.
The good news is the spaceport is designed with environmental sustainability in mind. It's designed to meet the requirements of LEED Gold Certification and it will incorporate "Earth Tubes" to cool the building, solar thermal panels, underfloor radiant cooling and heating, and natural ventilation during the mid seasons.