Branson Christens First-Ever Commercial Spaceport in New Mexico

This week Virgin Group media mogul Sir Richard Branson christened the first-ever commercial spaceport in Sierra County, New Mexico. The 110,000-square-foot spaceport cost over $200 million to build (thanks in part to taxpayer-financed support.) 150 attended the ceremony alongside New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and others. The Associated Press reports that more than 450 people have purchased tickets to fly a two and a half hour suborbital space trip, that includes five minutes of weightlessness, costing $200,000 each. Branson explains in an interview to the Associated Press (below) he plans on sharing the maiden voyage with his children by next Christmas:”

Branson’s space company, Virgin Galactic, has been working towards this day for years, but the christening isn’t their only good news. Last week NASA booked the first available flight scheduled to depart from the spaceport in an agreement that includes options for two additional flights worth up to $4.5 million. Darren Quick of explains, “Although Virgin Galactic is generally known as a space tourism company, it sees research experiemnts as a future mission segment and significant business opportunity.” The contract with NASA allows up to 1,300 lbs (590 kg) of scientific experiments per flight.

In other private aerospace news, MF Monitor reports that NASA reached an agreement on the criteria for certification of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) launches:

The basis of the new strategy is a step further to NASA’s directive for launch vehicle risk mitigation, taking into account mission-unique requirements from each of the three agencies. The latest document provides a common framework to license new launch service providers.

The risk-based certification framework allows the agencies to consider both the cost and risk tolerance of the payload and their confidence in the launch vehicle. For payloads with higher risk tolerance, the agencies may consider use of launch vehicles with a higher risk category rating and provide an opportunity for new commercial providers to gain experience launching government payloads, said NASA in a statement.

Within a given risk category rating, if new entrants have launch vehicles with a demonstrated successful flight history, then the government may require less technical evaluation for non-recurring certification of the new launch system. This new strategy further enables competition from emerging, commercially developed launch capabilities for future Air Force, NASA, and NRO missions.

For more of Reason Foundation’s work on this aerospace policy, see the Space Travel Research Archive.