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Branson on hand as Virgin Galactic's spaceport opens

Branson on hand as Virgin Galactic's spaceport opens

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The world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport opened today in New Mexico, marking another milestone in the public-private transition of space-based efforts in the U.S.

The world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport opened today in New Mexico, marking another milestone in the public-private transition of space-based efforts in the U.S.

Company founder and billionaire Richard Branson was on hand during the dedication ceremony this morning, held on one of the facility's 18,000 acres located about 24 miles north of the Mexican border and about 180 miles southwest of Roswell.

Virgin Galactic's Spaceport America will serve as the company's U.S. headquarters and the launchpad from which it will operate its commercial spaceflights.

The low-lying LEED Gold-certified facility, first announced in 2005, is designed by architecture firms Foster + Partners, URS and SMPC and at more than 110,000 sq. ft. contains space for astronauts, visitors, controls and an exhibition space, as well as a "superhangar" that houses spacecraft. Oh, and a two-mile-long runway.

The challenge is to now prove that regular flights from the facility are possible -- and safe. Last month, Virgin's SpaceShipTwo experienced a heart-stopping, thought temporary, malfunction during its 16th test flight, which ended after only seven minutes and 15 seconds.

There are 455 customers who hold tickets for the first private space flights.

Still, the company is bulking up on veterans in the space. Last week it signed a deal with NASA to allow several charter flights to conduct research on SpaceShipTwo missions, and soon after announced that it had hired former NASA executive Michael Moses to focus on operational safety and risk management as it pertains to the company's spaceship operations and logistics, flight crew operations, customer training and spaceport ground operations.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure