A desert spaceport is ready for blast-off

In a barren patch of desert in New Mexico, the road signs say it all. Milky Way. Rocket Road. Asteroid Beltway. The landscape is one of scrubby creosote bushes punctuated by an occasional cow, and in this odd setting sits an even odder monument to human ambition:Spaceport America, the world’s first custom-built commercial spaceport. Signs around the facility put it in its proper galactic context: “Spaceport America, New Mexico, USA, Earth.”

With its two-mile long runway and exceptionally sunny skies, the original idea behind the spaceport was akin to an airport, but for wealthy space tourists. It was born more than a decade ago out of a handshake deal between New Mexico’s then governor Bill Richardson and Richard Branson, the British billionaire whose interests include Virgin Galactic. New Mexico would build the spaceport, Mr Branson would supply the spaceships.

This bit of sandy soil turns out to be a good place to get into suborbital space. It is close to the equator and at high elevation. And due to its proximity to the White Sands Missile Range, the air above it is protected by a military no-fly zone almost as big as the state of New Jersey, making it easier to schedule rocket launches.

New Mexico spent $220m to build the spaceport. Virgin Galactic, as the anchor tenant, has a long-term lease there and has built its own hangar. But the company has pushed back its commercial space flights year after year. When Mr Branson launched Virgin Galactic in 2004, space trips as soon as 2007 were mentioned. More than five years after the spaceport was completed, not a single space tourist has departed from Spaceport America.

While some delays are normal in the space industry, Virgin had a particularly bad setback two years ago, when itsspaceship crashed during a test flight, killing a pilot. Virgin had to suspend test flights and only resumed them this month after completing a new spaceship.

“If Virgin had not crashed, we would be sending tourists up into space right now,” says Zach De Gregorio, chief financial officer of Spaceport, somewhat wistfully. “Up until that point we had really focused on Virgin and on their business.”

Instead Spaceport is trying to diversify its revenue sources — and placate a chorus of New Mexicans who see it as a boondoggle. During the fiscal year ending in June, it generated $2.3m in revenue, which covered about 70 per cent of its operating costs. The state of New Mexico helped with the rest. Mr De Gregorio says the facility will be able to support its own operating costs in the 2019 fiscal year.

Diversification is not easy when the space tourists have not shown up yet, but Mr De Gregorio is optimistic. The facility has other clients as well as Virgin Galactic — SpaceX, the launch company run by Elon Musk, is a tenant, although it has not done any launches here yet. Just over 30 launches have taken place from Spaceport, mostly research missions and satellite launches.

A handful of other aerospace companies are clients too, and Mr De Gregorio also hopes to attract space start-ups to do tests and launches at Spaceport. In a conference room near the mission control room, a glossy flyer advertises that the first flight is free for new customers. Spaceport is looking at more terrestrial income too, with a roster of events that includes drone racing, car racing and an ultra-marathon relay. They even offer weddings.

Despite these new revenue sources, the delays in space flight have heightened questions over whether the public should be subsidising Spaceport at all. The interest on the bonds issued to fund Spaceport is covered by a sales tax in the two nearest counties, Sierra and Doña Ana, where more than a fifth of the population lives in poverty. In contrast, a ticket on a future Virgin Galactic space ride costs $250,000.

The space terminal, by Foster and Partners, overlooks a runway, a power line and, in the distance, the San Andres mountain range. Huge sliding doors on either side of the hangar are ready to make way for an actual spaceship, instead of the replica that currently sits there. There are already plans for a second hangar and a second runway. “This is just the beginning,” Mr De Gregorio says. It is only waiting for the space tourists to arrive.