British billionaire and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson could see the gently curving roof line and unfinished steel shell of Spaceport America rising from the desert as his jet banked overhead.
It's in this remote part of southern New Mexico, where Branson's dream of reaching space may soon come to fruition.
Branson, the head of Virgin Group, which counts airlines, entertainment and mobile communications among its many businesses, visited recently for a tour of the spaceport and the dedication of its nearly two-mile-long runway. It's the world's first dedicated spaceport, which aims to become ground zero for the burgeoning commercial spaceflight industry.
"This is history, we're making it right here," Branson, 60, told a crowd of about 800 people, including aspiring space tourists who have already paid a deposit for their chance to go into suborbital space.
Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant of the taxpayer-funded $198 million spaceport. It plans to use the facility to take tourists on what will first be short hops into space. State officials want to add companies for other commercial space endeavors, such as research and payload delivery, once the spaceport's terminal and hangar are complete next spring.
Branson also has dreams of flights that would orbit the earth as well as flights that would take tourists to space hotels.
After extensive rocket testing on the company's sleek six-seater spacecraft — dubbed SpaceShipTwo, weekly flights for tourists are expected to begin in nine to 18 months.
The ship looks like a small plane with wings near the rear that sweep upward. It's designed to be carried aloft by its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, to an altitude of close to 50,000 feet. That's when the spacecraft will be released and its rockets fired, pushing passengers back into their seats for the trip to suborbital space.
At 60 feet long, SpaceShipTwo features two large windows for each passenger, one on the side and one overhead, and small thrusters that allow the two pilots to maneuver the ship once in space.
The craft, designed by well-known aerospace maverick Burt Rutan, also has a unique feathering system that allows it to return to the atmosphere and glide to a landing.
Tickets for SpaceShipTwo cost $200,000. The 2 1/2-hour flights will include about five minutes of weightlessness and views of Earth that until now only astronauts have been able to experience. Some 380 people have made deposits totaling more than $50 million, Virgin Galactic officials said.
With his tousled blond hair, designer shades and black leather jacket, Branson has always been daring. He's vowed to be among the first passengers, along with his parents and his two children. Ultimately he aims to get the price down so space travel is more affordable.
Here are excerpts from an interview with Branson, who got the crowd clapping and dancing for several minutes as WhiteKnightTwo circled overhead and made a surprise landing — it's first on the new spaceport runway.
Q: At what point did you consider space travel and think, "Hey this is something I want to invest in, this is going to be something"?
A: I went searching for engineers and technicians who could build a spaceship. I wouldn't have done it unless I could find the genius who could make our dreams become a reality, and Burt Rutan was the genius who made all of this possible. Having spent time with him, I decided he was the person to build a spaceship that could well revolutionize spaceship travel. So that was the key that made us decide to go ahead.
Q: So it's always been a dream for you?
A: Ever since I saw the moon landing as a young teenager, I was determined I would go into space one day. Because governments ran space travel, I soon realized they weren't really interested in you or me going to space. So I decided I would never have the chance to go into space unless I hurried up and created our own spaceline. So about a year from now, I can finally be able to fulfill my own personal dream.
Q: What do you think it will feel like?
A: I think the most breathtaking thing about being in space is actually looking back at the Earth. We do have a beautiful Earth still, one that is fragile and one that we need to protect. Every single astronaut who has come back from space comes back determined to do more to protect it. But also from creating something like this, other dreams become possible. From this, we're dreaming about orbital travel, we're trying to make that dream a reality. We're dreaming about putting up a Virgin hotel in space one day, we'll try to make that a reality too. We're dreaming about intercontinental travel at a fraction of the time it currently takes and using our engineers and technicians to try to make that become a reality. So unless you dream, nothing will happen. If you dream, you might be able to make your dreams come true.
Q: Some people talk about this being pie in the sky. Tell us how close we really are to reaching the goals the commercial space industry is talking about?
A: People are beginning to believe now. I think the drop flight (the first time SpaceShipTwo glided to a landing during a test in early October), which went so beautifully, made people sit up and realize this is really a reality. The next stage is to start flying the spaceship into space with rocket tests and that's months away now so we really are getting close to being able to say commercial spaceship travel is a reality.
Q: What role do you see for yourself in helping to propel commercial space travel?
A: It takes a team of people with different skill sets to make these things happen. Burt was the engineer and technician, and hopefully what we've done is manage to make it all possible by helping create the spaceport, creating the Virgin spaceship line and finding the money to make it all a reality. Also by using our commercial aviation skills to bring astronauts on board and our design skills to make the crafts look like sexy beasts, and finding the right people to create a spaceport that's going to be the sexiest spaceport in the world — the only spaceport in the world.