The completion of the first spaceport will also mark the beginning of the third era in human space exploration. In 1961, Yuri Gagarin opened the first era when he became the first human to travel to outer space and return onboard the Vostok 1. In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin marked the beginning of the second era, being the first humans to walk on the surface of the moon (a feat which was not repeated for the last 30 plus years). Since the 1970’s, human presence in space continued on a regular basis but was restricted to orbital missions using spacecrafts and space stations in low Earth orbit. Until 2001, space travel was possible only for professional, hand-picked astronauts, who had undergone government-funded training. The lucky few were allowed to travel to space onboard one of several expensive and complex spacecrafts, built and maintained by the U.S. and Russia (and previously the USSR). However, in 1997, the first paying space astronaut – Dennis Tito – was launched into orbit onboard a Soyuz space capsule. Tito remained in space for less than 8 days onboard the International Space Station (ISS), for which he reportedly paid the Russian government a whooping 20 million dollars. Over the past decade, several other rich private entrepreneurs, including Charles Simonyi from Microsoft, and the Iranian-American Anousheh Ansari, were lucky enough to travel to space. Ansari also spent 10 days inside the ISS.
Pioneering as they were these high paying commercial space tourists did not mark the beginning of the third era in space travel. It took one pilot and 24 minutes of daring flight onboard a revolutionary privately developed spacecraft to achieve this goal. SpaceShipOne was only capable of short suborbital flight, but it was a privately built and piloted, relatively cheap spacecraft, which allowed its pilot to fly safely to space. This innovative spaceship almost single handedly started a new industry – the industry of private space tourists.
There are currently several players in the evolving private space tourists’ industry. These players include companies such as Space Adventures, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, XCOR Aerospace, Rocketplane Limited and others. Some of these companies are already somewhat involved in the spaceport initiative (although some companies, such as Space Adventures, already have plans to build other spaceports in the United Arab Emirates and in Singapore).
The cost of the spaceport project is $31 million, and it was designed to have low-lying form, which is dug into the landscape to exploit the thermal mass. This form buffers the building from the extremes of the New Mexico climate, as well as catching the westerly winds for ventilation. The ‘green’ aspects of the spaceport design include photovoltaic panels for electricity, and water recycling capabilities. The concrete shell of the spaceport acts as a roof with massive windows opening to a view of the runway and spacecrafts.
TFOT covered some of the most recent milestones of the third era of human space travel. These include the launch of the first and second space hotel test models in 2006 and 2007, and Blue Origin’s “New Shepard” unique vertical take-off, vertical landing (VTOVL) flight test in November, 2006.
More information and images regarding the spaceport can be found in the Spaceport America website.