Space travel just got another step closer for the masses (at least the well-heeled ones) with the dedication of Virgin Galactic's new "Gateway to Space" facility at Spaceport America, the world's first purpose-built spaceliner terminal. Situated in the southern New Mexico desert, numerous luminaries were on hand to dedicate the innovative 120,000 square foot terminal/hangar facility (THF), including moon-walking astronaut, Buzz Aldrin and New Mexico governor Susana Martinez.

As part of the festivities, the crowd of more than 800 was treated to a fly-by of Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo, finally capped-off by some upbeat words from a champagne-quaffing Sir Richard Branson as he rappelled down the building's glass front with his two children. "Today is another history-making day for Virgin Galactic," said Branson. "We're here with a group of incredible people who are helping us lead the way in creating one of the most important new industrial sectors of the 21st century."

The US$209 million LEED Gold standard structure, funded and owned by the State of New Mexico and its taxpayers, was designed by UK architectural firm Foster + Partners, URS Corporation of California and SMPC Architects from New Mexico. The trio's low-profile design is dug into the landscape to exploit the soil's thermal mass, which both shields the facility from New Mexico's climate extremes and provides ventilation by capturing prevailing westerly winds. Numerous skylights fill the interior with natural light, and the terminal building's glass face provides exciting runway views for passengers and guests.

Despite all the upbeat fanfare, however, things haven't always been rosy. Completion of the THF was delayed by a combination of building code issues, contractor disputes and the remote location of the site. Additional cost overruns were minimized through the use of locally available materials and by implementing construction techniques typical of the region, including the above-mentioned geothermal heating and cooling.

Sized with enough space to accommodate two WhiteKnightTwo and five SpaceShipTwo vehicles, the new THF will also contain the company's astronaut preparation and celebration areas, mission control, and a planned Visitor Experience area for the visiting public.

To enhance the sense of adventure surrounding space flight, deliberate care was taken to balance privacy and accessibility in the facility. The astronauts' areas and visitor spaces are fully integrated with the rest of the building to convey the thrill of space travel. Mission Control, and other security-sensitive areas, while visible, will have minimal access.

The new facility's high-desert location comes with several advantages. It's 4600 feet (1400m) elevation shaves off that much altitude above sea level the WhiteKnightTwo would have to power through to reach launch height. The region's 330 annual sunny days will minimize weather delays, and the sparsely populated area will dramatically lessen the chances of loss of life should a malfunction bring down one of the craft.

Perhaps most propitious of all is the facility's location next to the 3400 square mile (890,000 hectare) White Sands Missile Range. Airspace above this government facility, and the adjacent Spaceport, is restricted, which forbids commercial aircraft traffic overhead.

"New Mexico has a long tradition of pioneering innovation in aerospace and related technologies," said Governor Martinez. "We already possess an impressive array of facilities and expertise in advanced technologies. Spaceport America and the opening of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space significantly deepen those capabilities and strengthen our global position as a powerhouse supporter of the space industry."

"Our partnership with Virgin Galactic is a perfect example of how government and private industry can work together to drive economic growth and science education," added Martinez.

In fact, the Spaceport's opening comes only a week after Virgin Galactic's successful arrangement to provide NASA with as many as three charter flights on SpaceShipTwo- a contract that could be worth nearly $4.5 million. The sub-orbital flights will each allow around 1300 lbs of scientific equipment, potentially enabling about 600 experimental payloads per journey.

WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo will continue to undergo test flights through 2012. Once licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration, Virgin Galactic will soon after be able to offer its long-anticipated commercial flights.

"We've never wavered in our commitment to the monumental task of pioneering safe, affordable and clean access to space, or to demonstrate that we mean business at each step along the way," says Branson.

So far, Virgin Galactic has $58 million on deposit from its 455 future space tourists. Each of them will eventually shell out $200,000 apiece for tickets on the 2.5-hour flight that will include around five minutes in zero-G and, of course, million-dollar views of the Earth. Such a bargain!

To see some of the festivities, check out the video below:

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