The construction of Spaceport America begins this week in New Mexico

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UPHAM, N.M. – The wide-open desert of southern New Mexico has long been a key passageway: Spanish conquistadors used it to settle North America, and wagon trains and railroads rattled through on their way to California.

Today, New Mexico is hoping the forgotten stretch of cattle ranches and mountain ranges will become a gateway to space.

Gov. Bill Richardson and others are preparing to break ground Friday on construction of a terminal and hangar facility at the world’s first commercial spaceport built with the idea of launching private citizens into space for profit. Some 250 people are lining up to pay $200,000 each to take the trip as early as next year.

It’s called Spaceport America, a $200 million taxpayer-funded project where the sky is not the limit. From the 10,000-foot runway, spacecraft will take flight attached to an airplane, then break free and rocket 62 miles into space before returning to the facility. The flights will last about two hours and include five minutes of weightlessness.

Science fiction? Not by any stretch.

“It’s real,” said Steve Landeene, the spaceport’s executive director. “You’re not talking about things drawn on paper anymore. The boondoggle factor has started to disappear.”

The spaceport will operate like an airport, offering a location where aerospace companies can lease building and hangar space. Virgin Galactic, a company owned by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, will be the spaceport’s anchor tenant.

Competitors such as XCOR Aerospace and Armadillo Aerospace are developing spacecraft for $95,000 flights. And as flights become more routine, costs should drop.

Similar spaceport ventures are proposed in Texas, Florida, Oklahoma and elsewhere. Besides New Mexico, Virgin Galactic also hopes to ferry tourists to space from northern Sweden.

Spaceport America is about more than space tourism. Landeene said the facility will also tap other business ventures such as medical research and communication projects.

State officials say the site will provide 500 construction jobs over the next four years and spark economic development, education and tourism for generations.

“It will bring jobs, give our students the opportunity to have careers in math and science here in New Mexico and create tourism and other long-term economic activity,” Landeene said.

Virgin Galactic and American aerospace designer Burt Rutan are building a craft that will take passengers on the thrill ride from New Mexico’s spaceport. In 2004, Rutan’s SpaceShipOne became the first privately built manned craft to reach space.

SpaceShipTwo, under development at Rutan’s facility in California, will be carried aloft by a mothership called White Knight Two, unveiled last summer. The smaller craft will separate and rocket into space.

Spaceport America’s runway is slated for completion next summer. The terminal and hangar should be ready for tenants in December 2010, when Virgin Galactic hopes to begin taking tourists aloft.

Five miles from the terminal is a launching pad for 20-foot rockets used mostly for science experiments. It’s been operational for the past two years.

Judy and Phil Wallin and their daughter, Amanda, live in a ranch home about a mile from the launching pad.

“What’s it like to see it go up? It’s ‘chick-koom,’ and it’s gone,” Judy Wallin said. “It is exciting.”

Asked if he would consider taking a ride into space, Phil Wallin laughed and said, “I want a guaranteed round trip before I go up.”

Judy Wallin added: “We want to go on the one that has a straight vapor trail, not the one with a corkscrew trail.”

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Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.