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Spaceport America's First Runway Built in NM Desert

Spaceport America Concept

An artist's concept of Spaceport America, a suborbital spaceport under construction in New Mexico. (Spaceport America / Foster + Partners)

World's first commercial spaceport. Check. Solo flight of a rocket ship for tourists. Check. A runway in the southern New Mexico desert to help them climb to the heavens. Check.

The dream of whisking tourists to space for a few minutes of weightlessness edged closer to reality on Friday.

"Today is very personal, as our dream becomes more real," said Sir Richard Branson, whose company, Virgin Galactic, will operate the flights. "People are beginning to believe now."

All that is left for the company is more rocket testing on SpaceShipTwo and sending it into space. The British billionaire said he expects flights for space tourists to begin in nine to 18 months, and he will be among the first passengers.

Stretching across a flat dusty plain 45 miles (72 kilometers) north of Las Cruces, the nearly two-mile-(3.2-kilometer)long runway is designed to support almost every aircraft in the world, day-to-day space tourism and payload launch operations.

Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant of the taxpayer-funded $198 million spaceport and plans to use the facility to take tourists on what will first be short hops into space.

State officials want to add companies for other commercial space endeavors, such as research and payload delivery, once the spaceport's terminal hanger facility is complete next year.

Branson was joined at Friday's ceremonies by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, tourists who have already paid their deposits for a seat into suborbital space and Buzz Aldrin, who walked on the moon in 1969 as part of NASA's Apollo 11 mission.

Virgin Galactic's White Knight Two -- the special jet-powered mothership that will carry SpaceShipTwo to launch altitude -- also made an appearance Friday, passing over the spaceport several times before landing on the new runway.

Spaceport America is the world's first facility designed specifically to launch commercial spacecraft.

Until now, space travel has been limited to astronauts and a handful of wealthy people who have shelled out millions to ride Russian rockets to the international space station.

Tickets for suborbital space rides aboard SpaceShipTwo cost $200,000. The 2 1/2-hour flights will include about five minutes of weightlessness. Some 380 people have made deposits totaling more than $50 million, Virgin Galactic officials said.

Branson, the president of Virgin Group, which counts airlines, entertainment and mobile communications among its businesses, partnered with famed aviation designer Burt Rutan on the venture.

While space tourism projects such as Virgin Galactic's receive plenty of publicity, the commercial space industry is rapidly developing with companies like SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, seeking to supply the International Space Station for NASA.

SpaceX has successfully placed a dummy payload into orbit and has contracts to lift satellites next.

Other firms, including Masten Space Systems of Mojave, California, and Armadillo Aerospace of Rockwall, Texas, are testing systems that would carry unmanned payloads to space.

Last month, Congress approved legislation that affirms President Barack Obama's intent to use commercial carriers to lift humans into near-Earth space.

"Each flight we make, we'll learn more, we'll experience, we'll open up more opportunities that we cannot even conceive of today," Branson said. "This history, we're making it right now."