competition and recent visitor to the International Space Station (ISS) -- vaulted the notion of private space flight from the pages of science fiction into an industry grounded in reality and poised to make a lot of money.

Money was another puzzle piece. The spacecraft designed by Rutan, SpaceShipOne, used a revolutionary design (when compared to the Space Shuttle) that permits trips into suborbital space for hundreds of thousands of dollars versus hundreds of millions for NASA launches. Branson, who built an empire on his apparently limitless passion for risky entrepreneurial ventures, acquired the rights to the technology and ordered a small fleet of new space vehicles. A prototype of the cabin for the nine passenger spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo, was unveiled in September at Wired magazine's NextFest in New York City.

With the vehicle and customer now in place, New Mexico initiated negotiations with Virgin, resulting in the December 2005 agreement that New Mexico would build a spaceport if Virgin Galactic located its world headquarters and all of its primary operations in the heart of the state.

"The rules were always very simple: Wait for the industry, wait for the customer, then go ahead," Homans said. "All those pieces were in place and the price of admission for New Mexico to be at the front of this new industry, the price of admission is to build a spaceport."

There is, however, a third piece to the puzzle: a market for commercial space activity. Fancy spaceships and a glittering spaceport bring little economic benefit without people who will pay to send themselves or some other payload into orbit.

Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, said the market not only exists, but demand for space access is higher than most could have guessed.

"The early part of the market is going to be space tourism," he said. "That's where we started because there's a ready market of people who've shown enthusiasm. We've got no product to show those customers -- it won't come out of the hanger till next year -- but the response has been remarkable. We've already got nearly $17million in deposits."

Virgin Galactic's first 100 trips are already spoken for, even with a price tag of approximately $200,000 per person per ride. Such a large sum might be enough to convince regular people that there's no way such an industry can survive. But as Whitehorn pointed out, tickets for the initial transatlantic flights from Southampton, England, to New York City in 1939 would cost $75,000 in today's dollars.

The first commercial space flights are anticipated to take place in 2009, with much of 2008 dedicated to testing. Plans call for as many as two launches a day, and Branson himself has pledged to be on the first flight. Since the spacecraft will be ready before the spaceport, flights initially will launch from the Mojave Spaceport near Edwards Air Force Base.

All of this is part of a unique experiment; private industry wants to see if the commercialization of space is a worthy goal while some forward-thinking state governments position themselves to reap the benefits.

"What we need to do is build spaceport facilities," said Alex Tai, Virgin Galactic's vice president of operations, at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' (AIAA) annual Space Conference. "We need to go out there and make partnerships like we are in New Mexico, where there was an incredible amount of bravery shown by Richardson and his government."

Indeed, a handful of states are beginning to realize the possibilities a private spaceport could offer -- meanwhile the one state that should be at the forefront of the industry is essentially absent.

Spaceports: The New Airports?

While New Mexico's Spaceport America is arguably the highest profile at the moment, other states are investing

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.