ABC News October 19, 2011

British billionaire Richard Branson has opened the world’s first commercial spaceport in the New Mexico desert, the new home for his company Virgin Galactic.

The eccentric businessman, with usual flair, sported a black jacket and waves of hair flying as he inaugurated the building by breaking a champagne bottle against a hangar building while rappelling down the side of it.

“Spaceport America”, as the site is called, will serve “as the operating hub for Virgin Galactic and is expected to house up to two WhiteKnightTwos and five SpaceShipTwos, in addition to all of Virgin’s astronaut preparation facilities and mission control”, the company said in a statement to the press.

About 150 people booked for travel on the first suborbital flights attended the event, the company said.

Also attending were the head of Virgin Galactic, George Whitesides, commercial director Stephen Attenborough, and famed US astronaut – and second person to step on the moon – Buzz Aldrin.

Branson last month said he hoped to launch a vessel to the edge of space within the next 12 months, which he said would kick off an era of commercial space travel.

“The mother ship is finished… the rocket tests are going extremely well, and so I think that we’re now on track for a launch within 12 months of today,” he said in September.

“About an hour between Los Angeles and London is not completely out of the question,” Branson said, adding that it will likely take many years before the company can offer such a service.

In the meantime, Virgin has sold 430 tickets for space travel – at $US200,000 a pop – for an estimated $US86 million.

A number of private companies are rushing to fill the gap left by NASA, which ended its 30-year shuttle program in July with the completion of the final Atlantis mission to the International Space Station.

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