With his usual flair, British billionaire Richard Branson rappelled from a balcony, shook up a big bottle of champagne and took a swig while christening the world's first built-from-scratch commercial spaceport. Branson's Virgin Galactic will stage its commercial space tourism venture from Spaceport America in a remote patch of desert in southern New Mexico.
He hopes enough powered test flights of Virgin Galactic's sleek spacecraft can be done by the end of 2012 to start commercial suborbital flights from the spaceport soon after.
More than 450 people have purchased tickets to fly with Virgin Galactic. About 150 of them attended the ceremony.
Before getting to enter the hangar, the crowd was treated to a flyover by WhiteKnightTwo, the mothership that one day will help take space tourists on suborbital flights.
The $209 million taxpayer-financed spaceport will be a launch station for people and payloads on the rocket ships being developed for Virgin Galactic.
Commercial service will start up after the company gets a license from the Federal Aviation Administration. NASA has already signed a $4.5 million contract with the company for up to three chartered research flights.
Tickets for rides aboard WhiteKnightTwo cost $200,000. The 2 1/2-hour flights will include about five minutes of weightlessness and views of Earth that until now only astronauts have been able to experience.
The most famous fictional desert spaceport is Mos Eisley
"Mos Eisley Spaceport. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious."
―Obi-Wan Kenobi, to Luke Skywalker
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