Preview tour: Spaceport USA

The last non-marathon driving day of my spring trip to New Mexico culminated in a guided tour of Spaceport America, billed as the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport.

Speed limit

Speed limit

The residents of Sierra County, wherein the spaceport lies, voted in a tax increase to help fund the spaceport’s development, as did the residents of Doña Ana County, their neighbors to the south. So it is actually a public facility (or it will be, once it opens).

Authorized only

Authorized only

The big attention-getters on the site are the hangar and flight control buildings of Virgin Galactic, brainchild of Sir Richard Branson, the airline boss and music mogul. His vision is evident in the facilities — and so is a Hell of a lot of his money.

Flight control

Flight control

The Foster & Partners-designed terminal building (dubbed “Gateway to Space”) has the dramatic and unconventional appearance of all their projects. The glass panels on the east-facing facade were specially produced by a German firm to be flawlessly reflective. Tour participants were kept 100 ft. away from the glass, to make sure no one touched it – which would have necessitated a full work crew to go over the entire facade.

(One wonders how they will deal with finger smudges once the facility opens to the public.)

Flight controller view

Flight controller view

There’s no doubt that the afternoon reflection of the San Andres Mtns. on the building is impressive, making such extreme measures seem almost appropriate.

San Andres, reflected

San Andres, reflected

Cosmic consciousness

Cosmic consciousness

There’s a water storage tank a few hundred yards away from the Virgin facilities that can purportedly be made to empty is gazillion-gallon contents in a matter of seconds in order to quell a fire event. There’s also a system that will pump fire-retardant foam into the terminal facility in no time flat. They’re taking their fire safety measures quite seriously, it seems.

German glass

German glass

Before we drove out onto the north-south pointing runway, the security guard made a visual inspection of tires to make sure no pebbles or other debris would be falling out on the tarmac. The team are trying to get used to this procedure well before mother ships actually begin taking off. (Imagine a small stone being sucked into a jet intake and you’ll get a grasp for the importance of this routine.)

Taxiway

Taxiway

According to our friendly and knowledgeable guide, regular flights into sub-orbital space could begin from the facility as early as this October. Bring it on, Virgin!

Return from space

Return from space

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