The world's first commercial spaceport is ready for business, with Sir Richard Branson this week opening the home of his Virgin Galactic operation at 'Spaceport America'.
Of course, merely cutting a red ribbon isn't Branson's style – the billionaire rappelled down the side of the suitably space-aged building and broke a bottle of champagne against it (after first taking a few sips himself).
Branson hopes to launch the first Virgin Galactic flight from the spaceport by the end of next year, and has already sold over 400 tickets for the ride at $200,000 per seat.
But the real prize is a return to the superfast era of the Concorde, only this time even quicker, with scheduled sub-orbital shuttles to whisk you from Sydney to London in four hours.
As Australian Business Traveller reported earlier this year, Brett Godfrey – former founding CEO of Virgin Blue, long-time Branson buddy and holder of one of those $120k seats into space – believes that sub-orbital services will be "the next level" beyond supersonic, with substantial appeal to business travellers.
"In another 10 or 15 years it will be $20,000 -- it will be no more than a first-class ticket somewhere" Godfrey says, "and then eventually they will be able to get a slightly bigger rocket with a bit more fuel and they'll be able to get it so it goes trans-con and then around the world. It may not be in my lifetime that it goes commercial but I think it probably will."
Inside Spaceport America
Located in the New Mexico desert, Spaceport America will serve as the operations hub for Virgin Galactic.
The 11,000 square metre building has been designed by UK-based architectural firm Foster + Partners (who kindly provided AusBT with these extraordinary photos and design concepts).
The terminal is dug into the landscape to buffer the building from the extremes of the New Mexico climate as well as catching the westerly winds for ventilation, while solar panels line the roof.
Seen from above, it should be just one of many spectacular sights on the sub-orbital journey.
It will house up to two 'White Knight Two' transporters, which soar into space cradling the smaller 'SpaceShipTwo' passenger craft.
The facility can also accommodate five of the Space Ship Two shuttles, so that the spaceport can reach its full commercial capacity.
The Spaceport also contains astronaut preparation facilities and mission control.
The entrance to the spaceport terminal is via a deep channel cut into the landscape, with the retaining walls forming an exhibition space which documents the history of space exploration.
It's also pretty schmick inside the terminal.
How sub-orbital flights work – or, flying the Kangaroo Route in 2050
Virgin Galactic's space carrier is an aircraft in two parts, with the 'White Knight Two' transporter cradling the smaller 'SpaceShipTwo' passenger craft beneath its wings.
White Knight Two, which is smaller than a Boeing 737, lifts off from a normal runway and climbs at subsonic speeds to 50,000 feet (just over 15,000 m).
At this point SpaceShipTwo -- half the width of the 737 and only 18 metres (60 feet) long -- detaches and fires its own boosters to soar to 110,000 m. That's about twice as high as Concorde used to cruise.
At this height, with the atmosphere becoming thinner and friction from air decreasing, the passenger shuttle can hit speeds of 4,000 km/h before turning off its engines, coasting along near the rim of space and gliding down to earth.
(The White Knight Two carrier vehicle has long since headed home to pick up its next cargo.)
With London and Sydney being just over 17,000 km apart, SpaceShipTwo travelling at 4,000 km/h and the earth far below spinning at 1,700 km/h, that's almost exactly three hours from Sydney Harbour to the Thames.
Add half an hour for liftoff and half an hour to glide down, and you turn the long-haul Kangaroo Route into a breezy four hour hop – less time than it currently takes from Sydney to Perth.
The current SpaceShipTwo design carries six people in relative comfort. Concorde flew over forty years ago, and its transatlantic services established that people are happy to sit in seats that are less comfortable than today's premium economy seats to cut their flight time in half.
Of course, today's White Knight Two carrier aircraft is no larger than a Boeing 737. Just imagine the numbers of people that could be carried by a White Knight aircraft the size of an Airbus A380, which can lift over five times as much as White Knight Two.
(The massive Antonov An-225 cargo aircraft can lift twenty times as much, and the Antonov was designed thirty years ago. This idea clearly has room to scale up.)
It's not a huge stretch to consider that future SpaceShipTwo-type aircraft the size of a medium-range jet like the A320 could be whizzing over a hundred passengers up into orbit and dropping them back down across the planet a few hours later.
Nor is it beyond the bounds of imagination to think that one enormous carrier could take off from Sydney carrying multiple smaller landing craft destined for multiple destinations across the globe.
This is the nine o'clock departure for New York, London, Tokyo, Rio and Johannesburg. Fasten your seatbelts.