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a0922 BC-US-SpaceportGroundbr 2ndLd-Writethru 06-19 0722

Ceremony marks New Mexico spaceport launch

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By TIM KORTE

Associated Press Writer

UPHAM, N.M. (AP) — Construction has started on a multi-million-dollar spaceport in the New Mexico desert that is meant to launch private citizens into space.

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Gov. Bill Richardson and other dignitaries staged a ceremonial groundbreaking Friday at the remote spaceport site in Sierra County.

The ceremony featured the lift off of model rockets. A road grader cut a 40-foot swath into the desert floor, inciting cheers from a crowd of about 300 people.

"Today will be a signal that America needs to regain its leadership in space, both in national space and commercial space," Richardson said. "Today is historic because New Mexico leads the nation in commercial space."

Spaceport America is a taxpayer-funded project where tourists will pay $200,000 to take suborbital flights into space. The site also performs rocket launches for science experiments and other ventures.

Richardson said the spaceport — about 45 miles north of Las Cruces — will provide a major economic development boost for southern New Mexico, along with providing long-term science and math careers for New Mexico students and advancements in renewable energy research.

New Mexico is making a $200 million investment in the project. Virgin Galactic, a company owned by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, is investing $250 million and will be the spaceport’s anchor tenant.

Virgin Galactic officials said Friday that 300 customers have made down payments to get launched into space.

From a 10,000-foot runway, spacecraft will take flight attached to an airplane, then break free and rocket 62 miles into space before returning to the facility. The flights will last about two hours and include five minutes of weightlessness.

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Lina Borozdina-Birch, a 40-year-old chemist from San Diego, was one of the first customers to sign up.

"I’m so excited. Up until this point in my life, it’s been like a science fiction novel," she said of the prospect of going to space.

Her dream began as she was growing up in the Soviet Union at the time when the country was locked in a space race with the United States. Borozdina-Birch mortgaged her home to afford the $200,000 ticket.

"It’s worth me paying my mortgage for the next 20 years twice to have my dream come true," she said.

While tourism flights have generated a lot of publicity, Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn emphasized that the venture is about commercial space. He said scientists will be able to accompany their experiments to space and the company’s launch system will be able to accommodate satellite launches.

Whitehorn also said it’s important to motivate young people to think of their possibilities. He compared the explorations of Charles Darwin and his research in the Galapagos Islands to what the next generation may be able to do.

"If we don’t have any explorers dreaming of space, there’s no place else to dream about. We have to inspire them," he said.

During the ceremony, a cast of about a dozen people dressed as Spanish conquistadors walked across the open plain, where construction of the runway is scheduled to begin next month. They carried Spanish colonial flags, poles topped with spears and muskets, evoking images of colonists who came through the area on the Camino Real in the 17th century.

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One of the actors presented Richardson with a scroll, symbolizing the connection between the explorers of the past and those of the future.

The spaceport will operate like an airport, offering a location where aerospace companies can lease building and hangar space.

The runway is slated for completion next summer. The terminal and hangar should be ready for tenants in December 2010, when Virgin Galactic hopes to begin taking tourists aloft.

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