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Special Report: What does Virgin Galactic crash mean for Spaceport America?

Special Report: Spaceport America's Future

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M - The $220 million dollar taxpayer-funded Spaceport America broke ground in 2009 and began constructing Virgin Galactic's "Gateway to Space building."

The plan was to one day house Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo spacecrafts, but after Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo crashed, killing one pilot during a test flight Friday, a long delay in the first launch from Southern New Mexico, seems inevitable.

Virgin Galactic Founder Sir Richard Branson projects confidence.

"We do understand the risks involved and we are not going to push on blindly - to do so would be an insult to all those affected by this tragedy. We are going to learn from what went wrong, discover how we can improve safety and performance, and then move forwards together," Branson said.

Welcome words for New Mexico's Spaceport America, which is taking shape after seven years of planning and construction.

Spaceport America's Executive Director, Christine Anderson, told Abc-7 last month they were just waiting for the final "go" from Virgin Galactic to get rockets off the ground.

"We're practicing drilling, exercising for all kinds of what if drills, preparing for the next big launches with Virgin Galactic and SpaceX," Anderson said.

Virgin Galactic has paid $2.7 million dollars so far, to lease its building at the Spaceport.

It's sold more than 700 tickets to space at $250,000. The spaceport expects to receive between $50,000 and $100,000 from every six-passenger flight.

Now, no one knows how long it will take for that revenue to materialize.  It could be years.

"I think we'll have to wait just a little bit longer to see how much of a delay that is to access the impact on budget," Anderson said.

Virgin Galactic initially plans to fly every six weeks, eventually operating like an airline.

"This space vehicle will go multiple times a day eventually just like an airline," Anderson said.

It's taken Virgin Galactic nine years to get this far. Testing was said to be nearly complete.

"We're just about to get back into flight tests, our final bit of flight tests, and then we'll be able to start transitioning things down. We're only going to fly when we're ready but we're getting very close now," George Whitesides, C.E.O of Virgin Galactic, said early October.

"We will not start taking people until we finish a whole massive series of test flights and until myself and my family have gone, and until we feel that we can safely say to people, we're ready to go," Branson said.

Virgin Galactic has a complex system to test.

"They did an extraordinary amount of work in developing this system early on to make it very safe, because take off is the most dangerous part of any aircraft flight or spaceflight," Pat Hynes, Director, New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, said.

Optimists point out the spaceport has already seen 21 successful launches.

While the world wonders if would-be celebrity space tourists like Leonardo DiCaprio and Ashton Kutcher will still be eager to bet their futures on a ride to space, Anderson says this setback won't jeopardize the future.

Her focus is recruiting new tenants. She expects four within the next year.

Until then, she insists the dream of commercial spaceflight is not a matter of if, but when.

"I think this is a bump in the journey, but it's certainly not a fatal one for commercial space industry at all. I mean this has happened many times before in the past and people learn from these things and they move forward," Anderson said.

Spaceport's second tenant, SpaceX, plans to fly a reusable rocket-the Falcon 9-R in March. The rocket will launch and land vertically, which Anderson calls "the holy grail of vertical launch." In the future, SpaceX says it plans to eventually put a colony on Mars.


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