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Cleared for Takeoff

You just know somebody’s going to make a movie about this.

On October 22, New Mexico’s governor, Bill Richardson, presided over the dedication of what could become the world’s first commercial spaceport. And what is a spaceport, you ask? Think of it as an airport for space travelers, and apparently they’re building one in New Mexico. Why? Because billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson is planning to start offering weekly sightseeing jaunts into space soon and his spacecraft – the imaginatively dubbed SpaceShipTwo – is going to need someplace to take off and land.

Branson’s always had a keen sense of humor. In 1972, at the height of the sexual revolution, he named his fledgling company “Virgin.” But this latest endeavor appears to be no joke. His new company, Virgin Galactic, is already taking reservations. Before you rush off to book yours, you should probably know that tickets cost $200,000 apiece, but if you can come up with a $20,000 deposit they will gladly add your name to the list of 340 other so-called “Virgin Galactic astronauts” they claim have already signed up. There’s no word yet on what their frequent flier program will offer, but you can book a flight either directly with Virgin Galactic or through one of their authorized local ticket agents. And no, I’m not making that last part up.

Spaceport America, as the new facility is called, is located in the middle of the New Mexico desert not far from the White Sands Missile Range in an area the Spanish conquistadors named Jornada del Muerto. Loosely translated, that means “Journey of the Dead Man.” I’m thinking Branson’s marketing people might want to work on that one. And while they’re at it, they might want to take a look at the nearest town, a little place 30 miles west of Spaceport America called Truth or Consequences. I kid you not; look it up. And yes, the town was named after that old television show.

So far, there isn’t much to show at Spaceport America other than a two-mile long runway and the early stages of terminal construction, but when it’s completed the $200-million facility will reportedly encompass a 47,000 sq. ft. double-height hangar; administration and support facilities for both Virgin Galactic and the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (c’mon, you didn’t really think they could pull this off without creating another government agency, did you?); and a modern, environmentally friendly terminal housing an operational training area, spacesuit changing rooms, a departure lounge, and celebration areas. The facility will also house a state-of-the-art control room and a restaurant, probably because they won’t be offering in-flight meals…much like most other airlines today. There’s no word yet on whether TSA will be handling security for the intrepid travelers. Hopefully not. Removing your shoes could be a real pain in a spacesuit.

All kidding aside, if anybody can pull this thing off, Richard Branson can. His record speaks for itself. A dyslexic who left school at the age of 16, Branson has since turned himself into one of the richest businessmen in the world. He has the money to make things happen, and he’s not afraid to put it where his mouth is. In 2009 he signed a 20-year lease making Virgin Galactic the anchor tenant at Spaceport America. The cost? A cool $1-million per year for the first five years, with additional payments based on the number of launches the company makes.

That’s probably small change compared to what he’s investing in the design and development of the company’s state-of-the-future-art spacecraft. The brainchild of Burt Rutan, arguably one of the most gifted, forward-thinking aircraft designers the world has ever known, the vehicles will feature such advanced technology as hybrid rocket motors and a unique feathered re-entry system that Virgin Galactic claims “does away with the need for sophisticated computer driven flight control systems or the need to rely on pilots” for a “heat free re-entry followed by a glide runway landing.” There’s also the WhiteKnightTwo, the twin-fuselage “mothership” designed to ferry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of 50,000 feet for launch. None of that technology comes cheap.

Most entrepreneurs would consider getting a business devoted to space tourism off the ground (no pun intended) challenging enough, but not Branson. He’s already thinking ahead. If his company can transport amateur astronauts into space, why not professional astronauts? With the impending demise of the space shuttle program, America’s astronauts are going to need some way to get back and forth to the International Space Station. Branson and company may have a solution to that problem. But that’s still a ways off. For now the goal is giving wings to the well-heeled adventurers of the world.

Personally, I hope he succeeds. I’ll probably never get the opportunity to go, but if I did, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate a $200,000, 2.5-hour joyride into space than by cutting loose in a town called Truth or Consequences. Now that’s an adventure!