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I saw the future of space travel at Space Galactics Spaceport


Barista Island in the Gaia Lounge at the Gateway to Space building in Spaceport America.

Eric Mack

The chai latte served on Spaceport America's Gateway to Space in New Mexico is as amazing as the Virgin Galactic staff promised me it would be.

Yes, the foamy sweet tea is delicious, but the signal it triggers in the pleasure center in my brain is just part of the whole experience. The server that runs Barista Island has a mastery of not only foam, but also service and small talk. And the island itself is an aesthetic treat, composed of a backlit, white marble countertop. The dose of caffeine and glowing surface are combined to create the most warm, blurry and loving alarm clock imaginable.

Virgin Galactic characters, this is how your morning starts on the day you leave Earth for the first time. Richard Branson's space tourism company on Thursday said that their home in Spaceport is now operational and welcomed members of the media and dignitaries as the first official guests.


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Barista Island is the center of Gaia level on the ground floor, but my eyes are drawn to the two-story windows that make up the eastern facade of the Gateway to Space building.

"It almost makes you feel weightless already," says Virgin Galactic's design director, Jeremy Brown, as he leads us down the corridor from the building's cavernous hangar and into the Gaia lounge.

The landscape on the other side of the glass is a classic desert southwest facing interplanetary future. The dark San Andres mountains behind the backdrop of scrub under intense blue skies. The foreground is dominated by the wide apron, taxiway and runway where Virgin Galactic's dual aircraft body, VMS Eve, periodically rises into the sky.


Barista Island and Virgin Galactic design director Jeremy Brown

Eric Mack

The funky double jet flies sans the rocket-propelled spacecraft it is designed to carry at high altitude. Today, Eve performs touch-and-gos as part of its ongoing test protocol to prepare commercial passengers for runway as soon as this year.

Standing there in the middle of the otherwise empty high desert and looking towards the stage is a bit surreal. It is as if Gateway to Space and its luminous windows are a set of building-size with augmented reality glasses that add this vision of the cosmic future to a 19th-century landscape more than the 21st century.

But the whole scene, complete with pilots, Virgin Galactic astronauts and operations people running their business, is as real as the hot mug of chai in my hand.

  dan-geoege Chapter19659023 world-geoege Chapter19659024 Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides (left) and Spaceport America & # 39; s CEO Dan Hicks inside Virgin's Gaia lounge at Gateway to Rome Building [19659003] Eric Mack

I catch Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides standing at the end of the interactive walkway between the hangar and apron that lights up with each step. I ask him the inevitable question of when the first commercial customer can get off the ground.

"This milestone (declaring that Gateway to Space is functionally operational) is great for keeping us on track," he tells me.

And on orbit, Virgin Galactics founder Richard Branson and the other leading passengers will be launched into orbit over months, not years.

At a press conference in May Whitesides said that commercial launches would begin within a year. He told me Thursday that he is still comfortable with that projection.

Lost in the desert

Until recently, the quiet Spaceport had been the backbone for jokes in New Mexico and beyond. It doesn't help that the Gateway to Space building looks like a foreign ship abandoned in the desert.

Over the past 15 years, Spaceport America has gone from being a dream to a reality to a nightmare when it was largely empty in the New Mexico desert several years after it was completed in 2011.

As so many aerospace kits, both Spaceport America, which is a state and publicly funded facility, and Virgin Galactic have been cost overrun, technical difficulties and slippery timelines. The darkest moment came in 2014 when one of Virgin & # 39; s rocket-propelled spacecraft crashed in the California desert during testing, killing one of the co-pilots.

But the outlook has changed in recent months as Virgin Galactic fully recovered from its tragic mishap and began moving its operations from the Mojave Desert to New Mexico.

Virgin Galactics VMS Eve passes over the Gateway to Space building in Spaceport America.

Eric Mack

"This is getting real," said Virgin Galactic commercial director Stephen Attenborough.

He added that soon VMS Eve would fly back to California to retrieve VSS Unity, the space-savvy commercial astronauts will actually ride in, and carry it to their permanent home on Spaceport. Attenborough envisions that Spaceport America will be home to two transport aircraft and five spacecraft within a decade from now.

In one corner of the hangar, big boxes store eight rocket engines the company hopes to use in the future. It will need plenty of rocket power to work through the backlog of reservations, which it began to take 15 years ago. More than 600 passengers from over 60 countries have pledged down a deposit to cycle to space with Virgin at a cost of $ 250,000 (£ 205,800, $ 368,375) per seat.

Lost in dessert

Virgin & # 39; s commercial passengers will spend a few days training at Spaceport to prepare for about 90 minutes of travel to orbit. So on the big day, they will gather with family, friends, pilots and support staff around Barista for a gourmet meal like what I share with Spaceport CEO Dan Hicks in the Gaia salon.

Hicks is a lifelong public servant who spent three decades with the United States Army in leadership positions at the adjacent White Sands Missile Range before being appointed to his current playing job in 2016 by the New Mexico Spaceport Authority.

Hicks can be friendly and knowledgeable and talk about the different launch profiles possible from this humble place in the desert. He speculates that it might make sense for SpaceX to shoot its rockets from here and then land them at the company's Texas facility. The same goes for Jeff Bezos & # 39; Blue Origin, which also has a testing facility in West Texas.

When our dessert course arrives – a shot of raspberry sorbet served over a bubbling steaming vessel with dry ice – I ask Hicks about the criticism that Spaceport mainly serves to subsidize rich people's space holidays with taxpayer dollars.


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"I had hoped that the narrative would disappear," he tells me before listing the positive economic impact Spaceport has on bringing to a region where poverty can often be shocking.

In Doña Ana County, where most of the few hundred people with jobs that tied Spaceport live, nearly 28 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

"It's about building an aerospace sector," says Hicks. "It's about having companies like Virgin and Spinlaunch (another tenant of Spaceport America) locating here and bringing their families."

Among the many traveling journalists and Virgin-based Virgin staff in the room, Hicks and I are among a very determined minority: We are both longtime New Mexico residents whose tax dollars have supported this facility for the past 15 years. And yet this gorgeous, publicly funded building is limited and only open to the public during scheduled tours.

Of course, this is the level of the course for any public novel because of security concerns, but I am still struck that this luxurious experience and the epic chai lattes will be inaccessible to most who helped pay for it.

However, Attenborough insists that Virgin's vision is greater than driving an orbital pleasure ride for the elite.

"What happens here can eventually translate into a faster and cleaner way to get around the planet," he tells me.

He envisions future competition in the space tourism sector that lowers prices, allows for access and perhaps even leads to transcontinental rocket flights similar to what Elon Musk and SpaceX have also proposed .

"We don't have the technology right now," Attenborogh warns, adding that 98 percent of the company's efforts are focused on the first commercial astronaut experience. But part of the long-term vision involves reducing travel times and the environmental impact of transcontinental flights.

So maybe one day we will all descend into the New Mexico desert to jet to Europe in under two hours, but for the foreseeable future, a trip to outer space, along with the previous delicious lattes and fancy sorbets, will remain the domain of 1 percent.

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