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New Mexico spaceport wins license

An artist's conception shows the Spaceport America's terminal building, surrounded by White Knight Two and SpaceShipTwo vehicles. Most of the facility would be built underground.
An artist's conception shows the Spaceport America's terminal building, surrounded by White Knight Two and SpaceShipTwo vehicles. Most of the facility would be built underground.Virgin Galactic / Foster + Partners

New Mexico's Spaceport America, the anticipated home base for Virgin Galactic's suborbital space tourism operation, has won its launch site license from the Federal Aviation Administration, state officials reported Monday.

The FAA's go-ahead, which came along with the issuance of a final environmental impact study, brings the $198 million project closer to its construction phase, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority said in a news release.

"These two governmental approvals are the next steps along the road to a fully operational commercial spaceport," the authority's executive director, Steven Landeene, was quoted as saying. "We are on track to begin construction in the first quarter of 2009, and have our facility completed as quickly as possible."

Spaceport America would be the first flight center built from the ground up for passenger spaceflights. The 16,600-acre stretch of ranchland is located 40 miles north of Las Cruces, N.M., and 30 miles southeast of Truth or Consequences, in Sierra County.

Several vertical rocket launches have already been fired off from the facility, including an UP Aerospace launch in April 2007 that sent cremated remains from "Star Trek" actor James "Scotty" Doohan, Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper and 200 others on a suborbital trip. Those flights were allowed on a launch-by-launch basis. However, the New Mexico Legislature made acquisition of an FAA launch site license one of the requirements for funding spaceport construction.

On Tuesday, FAA spokesman Hank Price confirmed that the launch site license was formally issued.

Timeline for the future
The last requirement before construction can begin is a signed lease agreement with Virgin Galactic, which would follow up on a nonbinding memorandum of agreement announced last year. The spaceport authority said it expected to check that item off the list by the end of the month.

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Last year's memorandum called on Virgin Galactic to pay about $27.5 million over 20 years to lease facilities at the spaceport. Additional revenue could come from other prospective tenants, including Lockheed Martin and the Rocket Racing Inc. / Armadillo Aerospace joint venture.

If the spaceport authority sticks to its timeline, construction of a terminal and hangar facility for airplane-style horizontal takeoffs could be finished by late 2010. The start of space tourism flights would depend on how soon the spaceship operators would be ready to go.

For example, Virgin Galactic plans to begin test flights of its carrier airplane, known as White Knight Two, within weeks at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Test flights for SpaceShipTwo, the rocket plane that would actually carry passengers to the edge of space, could begin as early as next year in Mojave. Commercial service isn't expected to start until 2010 at the earliest, either at Mojave or at Spaceport America.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo would take passengers past the 62-mile (100-kilometer) altitude mark that represents the start of outer space.

Following the money
Initial plans called for the spaceport to be built at a cost of $225 million, and the Legislature required the spaceport authority to come up with a budget that didn't exceed that amount. The current budget is set at $198 million, with an estimated $140 million of that coming from the state and the balance coming from local tax revenue, said David Wilson, a spokesman for the spaceport authority.

Two counties, Sierra and Dona Ana, approved tax measures for the spaceport. However, Otero County voters rejected a spaceport tax in November. Wilson told that discussions were continuing with other counties about coming in on the project and making up for Otero's anticipated share.

"We've got 97 percent of the money that we need," Wilson said. If another entity can't be recruited for the spaceport tax district, the construction plans could conceivably be scaled back, he said.

New Mexico joins six other states that have FAA licenses for commercial spaceports: Alaska (Kodiak), California (Mojave and a commercial launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base), Florida (Spaceport Florida at Cape Canaveral), Texas (privately operated by Blue Origin near Van Horn), Oklahoma (Burns Flat) and Virginia (Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport).