In 1969, America successfully landed on the moon, ending a decade-long race to conquer the final frontier. Over the decades, technology has made space travel easier and safer, but it still requires years of training and extensive knowledge of physics and mathematics. All of that changes this year when Spaceport America opens to the public.
The "world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport," Spaceport America promises to take ordinary citizens into space for tourism. For $200,000, travelers get two and a half hours of space flight and five minutes of weightlessness. Virgin Galactic, a company within the ever-growing Virgin Group plans to provide safe, energy-efficient space travel for those willing (and able) to cough up the cash.
In 2006, Sir Richard Branson, president of Virgin Group, announced that his company would build a spaceport in New Mexico after the governor enacted legislation allowing for the station. Over the next three years the company revised the plans and collected money for the port. In 2008, they received a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation and began construction one year later.
On October 22, 2010, a ceremony was held for the completion of the runway. It is estimated that the budget for the station was around $212 million, two thirds of which was donated by the New Mexico state government via taxes approved by the public.
The spaceport, a 670,000 square foot facility, promises to utilize new advances in solar energy to power the base and the ships. Even though the facility itself received a LEED Gold certification, ecological impact is still a concern. A new study has shown that the soot emitted by rocket-propelled vehicles, unlike coal or jet fuel, remains in the atmosphere for years. This soot could decrease the earth's overall temperature by as much as 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit, while simultaneously warming the poles by 1.5 degrees. Similarly, the equatorial regions could lose 1 percent of their ozone, while the poles would gain 10 percent.
In addition to the ecological damages caused by space tourism, there are other concerns which must be addressed before space travel becomes commonplace. The biggest concern of scientists is safety. Minor damages can lead to a catastrophe, putting passengers at a severe risk for their investment. Furthermore, the medical requirements and possibly harmful effects of space travel are not fully known yet.
The spaceships themselves, named the SpaceShipTwo and the Virgin Mothership Eve, may look like normal jets, but they employ the latest technology to provide the best experience possible. SpaceShipTwo is 60 feet long with a 90-inch diameter cabin, and has two large windows for viewing, one at eye level and the other overhead. The ship holds six passengers and two pilots, who, in case of an emergency, can shut off the hybrid rocket motor and glide down to the runway.
The Virgin Mothership Eve is the largest carbon composite aviation vehicle ever built and can carry a load of 35,000 pounds to altitudes of 50,000 feet. It uses this lifting capability to carry SpaceShipTwo up to altitude, where it detaches from the mothership and continues into space.
People remain optimistic towards space travel, given the many positive aspects. Commercial space travel is expected to become a billion-dollar industry providing thousands of new jobs and new opportunities for exploration and scientific experimentation.
Pack your bags and start saving your allowance, because for the first time anybody can experience this frontier.