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Welcome to the Real Space Age

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“We’re so close I can taste it,” he said.

I asked if he could say categorically that flights would commence within five years.

“Five years?” he said incredulously. “You bet your ass!”

Whitesides pointed to the company’s waiting list of over 500 future passengers. While Virgin Galactic is mostly funded by the privately owned Virgin Group, each of these customers has paid at least a $20,000 deposit, and more than half have written a check for the full $200,000, thus ensuring they remain at the front of the queue. He said Branson is “putting his money and his body where his mouth is. He’s putting, almost more importantly, the bodies of his children where his mouth is.” (Branson has announced that the entire family, save his wife—including potentially his 88-year-old mother—is slated to fly together.) Whitesides predicted that within the next few months, Virgin Galactic would install the rocket into its most recent iteration of the spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo, and fire it. “With ­SpaceShipOne, it took three flights before it went into space,” he said. “We’ll probably have five or six, but pretty quickly we’ll get to space altitude. And so the start of powered flight means that we are not far from spaceflight.”

Two days later, I was driven across the beautiful, inhospitable desert of southern New Mexico to see for myself where these flights to space will begin: Spaceport America. The spaceport is only 50 miles from Las Cruces, but the road off Interstate 25 still wasn’t paved, and so the drive took two hours. Finally, it appeared in the distance, rising almost imperceptibly from the scorched brown sands. It looked futuristic but also prehistoric, as if a giant UFO had crash-landed here thousands of years earlier or burrowed underground like the alien spacecraft in the movie Prometheus.

The spaceport’s roots stretched back a decade, to the day when Bill Richardson showed up at Virgin’s London office and identified himself as the governor of New Mexico, hoping to speak with someone about why his state was would be a perfect home for Virgin Galactic. No one at the office had ever heard of Richardson, or could even place New Mexico on a map. He was handed off to a low-level flack, who pushed him up, and up, and up, until a few weeks later he and Branson were in a helicopter hovering over the grounds on which the spaceport now stood.

Richardson told me he was motivated by a high-minded, lifelong love of space as well as a practical belief, from his years of watching budget wrangling in Congress, that space exploration would need to be privatized. To him, a spaceport offered jobs and infrastructure and an economic base for southern New Mexico, plus the possibility of driving space science in the state’s universities. When oil and gas revenues led to a budget surplus, he sensed an opportunity. Motivated to beat out other, bigger states with large space infrastructures, he began courting Branson personally. “Everything he touched seemed to be gold—movies, commercial aircraft, space; the brand of Branson attracted me enormously,” Richardson says. He told Branson he could “make this happen” and convinced the state to offer $209 million of financing. He considers the spaceport—where the runway bears his name—one of his highest achievements as governor and says that Arnold Schwarzenegger is still jealous that he landed it.

A lone, elderly security guard took our licenses before waving us in. We drove onto the grounds, then around the rear of the building, where its vastness became fully apparent, an entire glass wall rising six stories, reflecting back the landscape: endless desert, blue sky, clouds swirling in wisps. We cruised down the more-than-two-mile runway. We could see, at the tallest point of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space, a bar that will be accessible only to Virgin customers upon their return to Earth. It has been designed, in typical Branson understatement, to be “the most exclusive bar in the galaxy.”

My guide was Carolyn Wincer, 36, the head of travel and tourism for Virgin Galactic, who grew up on a dairy farm in rural New Zealand and, at 20, lucked into a job in London working reservations for Branson’s consortium of high-end rental properties. In the post-9/11 tourism slump, she took a position no one else in the company had wanted, handling reservations for Necker Island, Branson’s private compound in the British Virgin Islands. What was essentially a personal-assistant job morphed into a more substantial career in Branson’s tourism business, and in 2011, she was given the reins to build Virgin Galactic’s marketing and customer infrastructure, settling in Las Cruces.

We went inside for a tour. Virgin has signed a twenty-year, $200 million lease to be the spaceport’s anchor tenant, which has allowed the spaceline to have a strong say in the build-out. The shape of the terminal is basically parabolic, with banks and walls of exterior windows forming arcs to correspond with the structure. The construction was still wrapping up; doors were held open by screwdrivers. Wincer and a colleague were returning the following day to do some cleaning, as the 94 official “space agents” authorized to book Galactic’s flights were flying in from around the world to see the facility. But even in this state, the space was vast and gleaming white. Most impressive was the soaring, 110,000-square-foot hangar, the future home of five SpaceShipTwo rocket planes, which will carry passengers, and two WhiteKnightTwo launch “mother ships,” which will effectively taxi the rocket planes up the first 50,000 feet.


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