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Virgin space venture eyes New Mexico

New Mexico and Virgin Galactic are expected to announce an agreement next week for suborbital launches to take place from the state's yet-to-be-built spaceport.
/ Source: staff and news service reports

An agreement with British airline tycoon Richard Branson will put New Mexico on the map as the launch pad for personal spaceflight worldwide, the state's economic development secretary says.

State officials plan to announce a major agreement next week with Branson, but Economic Development Secretary Rick Homans declined to discuss the details with the Albuquerque Journal on Tuesday.

Branson is to join New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson on Dec. 14 to announce the agreement with Branson's space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, Homans told the Journal.

"This has been a dream of New Mexico for the past 15 years to develop a spaceport, and it also coincides with Richard Branson's dream to take people back and forth into space," he said. "I think this is one of those great occurrences for New Mexico where we're in the right place at the right time, and we're on the verge of witnessing a whole new industry develop right in front of us."

State officials have visited Virgin Galactic in London, and company officials have made repeated visits to New Mexico, Homans said.

In a telephone interview with, Stephen Attenborough, Virgin Galactic's vice president of astronaut relations, confirmed that announcements on a "location" for spaceflight operations would be made in London as well as New Mexico next week. But like Homans, he declined to go into the details.

Attenborough said Virgin's expected startup of a space-themed online skill game was being delayed so as not to detract from next week's announcements.

A little more than a year ago, aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan and software billionaire Paul Allen captured the $10 million Ansari X Prize when the Rutan-designed SpaceShipOne rocket plane dashed to the edge of space twice in five days. The prize was aimed at encouraging space tourism through the development of low-cost private spacecraft.

Rutan's Scaled Composites has a deal with Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, to build five spacecraft under the umbrella of The Spaceship Company. Virgin Galactic is to take passengers on trips into space for $200,000 each.

New Mexico plans to break ground in January on a spaceport near Upham, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) north of Las Cruces. Two private companies, Starchaser and UP Aerospace, already have announced plans to launch suborbital rockets from the spaceport. The annual X Prize Cup and Rocket Racing League finals are also due to take place there.

Virgin Galactic has said it plans to offer spaceflights from multiple spaceports. The Scaled Composites team is currently developing the "SpaceShipTwo" system for Virgin Galactic at the Mojave Airport in California, which already has gained federal approval for spaceport operations.

This report includes information from The Associated Press and MSNBC's Alan Boyle.