Launch Party at World’s First Private SpacePort

by Matt Forcey

Sixteen months after breaking ground in Las Cruces, New Mexico, the world’s first commercial spaceport “Spaceport America” celebrated this weekend with a launch party for the facility’s two-mile-long runway (watch the ceremony here).  A partnership between the State of New Mexico and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, the spaceport has been providing commercial satellite launch services for the past few years, and will soon begin its much-anticipated space tourism flights, ferrying lucky (and wealthy) customers into suborbital space for a few minutes of weightlessness and a remarkable view of our planet.

Soon-to-be astronauts will receive a truncated training course (equate this to taking a “resort course” for scuba) at a state-of-the-art, purpose-built hanger facility, before boarding the VSS Enterprise (also known as SpaceShipTwo).  Carried to an altitude of 50,000 feet by the launch plane “Eve” (aka WhiteKnightTwo), the rocket-powered spacecraft detaches and accelerates to a speed of over 2,500 mph in a matter of seconds.  Floating silently at 110 km above the earth for enough time to complete the requisite zero-gravity somersaults, the Enterprise rotates its pseudo-wings 90 degrees and glides back to its home base, landing on the newly named “Governor Bill Richardson Spaceway”.

Take a virtual tour of Spaceport America:

Not surprising for an innovation of this scope, there are already budding concerns over the program’s impact on the environment.  The same hybrid rocket motor that makes this trip possible, might also be potentially damaging to our already fragile ozone layer.  According to a study published in the scientific journal Geophysics Research Letters, the 600 tons of exhaust soot generated by the proposed 1,000 space flights per year, would disrupt the ozone layer in the northern hemisphere and cause an increase in polar surface temperatures of 1 C.  “There are fundamental limits to how much material human beings can put into orbit without having a significant impact,” said study co-author Martin Ross, an atmospheric scientist at the U.S. Air Force-funded Aerospace Corporation in Los Angeles, California.

With the signing of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, President Obama authorized the over $58 billion for NASA programs over the next three years.  Commenting about how these funds may be used to further the private space industry, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said, “it is clear that our nation’s future space efforts will be working even more closely with the growing commercial space transportation industry. Innovative approaches that foster this new commercial industry will bring more competition and opportunities that will lower the costs of spaceflight and payload services for America’s aerospace programs, and introduce new human space transportation systems.”  On whether or not any of this investment will also be used to address the environmental impact of this budding industry, Garver’s boss, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden went on to say, ““we will continue to invest in green aviation and other technologies that make travel safer and more efficient.”

Space tourism flights are scheduled to begin at Spaceport America next year.


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