"... for me the single overarching goal of human space flight is the human settlement of the solar system, and eventually beyond. I can think of no lesser purpose sufficient to justify the difficulty of the enterprise, and no greater purpose is possible." -- Michael Griffin, Administrator of NASA, in a 2004 testimony before Congress

For centuries, man has dreamt of escaping the confines of Earth and venturing into the universe's unknown blackness. Space, more than any other field of exploration, has the ability to inspire people of all ages and backgrounds. Indeed, at the dawn of the space race, everything from cars to television to toys was influenced by the wonder of what might be. But the once mighty American space industry, still essentially in its infancy, has struggled for more than two decades to recapture the public's imagination.

After the Apollo program ended in the 1970s, the Space Shuttle, unarguably a technological marvel, was touted as the next generation of space vehicle -- a manned launch system that would be safe, cheap and easily repeatable.

It was none of those things.

Following the Challenger explosion in 1986, the public's fascination with the Space Shuttle program quickly transformed into apathy, even anger. In a 1994 episode of The Simpsons that reflected popular sentiment, the satirical cartoon skewered NASA when the agency was depicted turning average nitwit Homer Simpson into an astronaut as part of a desperate attempt to rekindle public interest in Space Shuttle launches. The 2003 Columbia disaster further degraded public interest in the Shuttle program and in space exploration itself.

But there is mounting evidence that the space race will soon be reborn. Thanks largely to the 2004 X-Prize competition and a surprising attitude adjustment taking shape in NASA, many observers herald the coming years as the dawn of a race toward the commercialization of space -- bringing with it new jobs, new space vehicles and an entirely new industry. A few states already are placing bets on this burgeoning enterprise, believing in economic development potential that could be out of this world.

Rise of the Spaceport

The deserts of the southwestern United States typically are regarded as barren, lifeless expanses of rock and sagebrush. But as nature shows are fond of pointing out, there is an abundance of life hidden in the harsh landscape -- a community of creatures that can soon expect human company. In a few short years, the arid expanse from Mojave, Calif., to New Mexico will not only host coyotes, snakes and scorpions, but also wealthy people from around the world seeking what may be the ultimate adventure -- a rocket ride to space.

The commercialization of space is beginning, and the fledgling industry needs a launch pad of its own. Filling that role is something called a spaceport. The word spaceport conjures up visions of the various "Star"-related films -- be they Star Wars or Star Trek. But fact, as usual, is a bit more ordinary than fiction. A spaceport would function just like an airport, but instead of traveling to Minneapolis-St. Paul or Raleigh-Durham, passengers would hurtle more than 60 miles above the Earth's surface and return in about an hour. Some spaceport visionaries hope these facilities will include hotels, restaurants and other venues that will entertain space tourists before and after their experience.

Long the exclusive territory of NASA and the military, the spaceport is being transformed into a commercially viable enterprise, with economic development opportunities ripe for the picking -- precisely why New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson initiated a bold plan to bring the commercial space travel industry to his state.

In December 2005, Richardson struck an agreement with adventurer extraordinaire and Virgin Companies Chairman Sir Richard Branson. The newly created Virgin Galactic, a Virgin

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.