Amid a Second Tragedy, Plans for a U.S. Spaceport are Unveiled

Under the cloud cast by Steve Fossett's apparent accident, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic moves forward with the ambitious Spaceport America in the New Mexico desert.

Image above: The facility has sustainable elements built into its design, including solar roof panels and a below-ground geothermal loop for heat retention.

The press conference unveiling the design for Spaceport America, the New Mexico facility from which Virgin Galactic intends to launch paying customers on suborbital spaceflights, was originally going to be held on July 27. The day before, however, a tragic explosion killed three engineers at a test facility in California operated by Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites, the company building Virgin's spacecraft.

The press conference was quickly postponed to September 4, which unfortunately turned out to be the day after adventurer Steve Fossett, a close friend of Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and pilot of Rutan's around-the-world Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer aircraft, disappeared on a flight over the Nevada desert. His condition remains unknown, but many fear he perished in a crash.

The announcement went ahead because it wasn't until Tuesday morning that news of Fossett's disappearance began to circulate. The timing is terrible, of course, for Branson and the Virgin team—who, according to a statement released by Branson, are hopeful that Fossett has survived.

The spaceport is quite striking, which isn't surprising given that it was designed by famed British architect Norman Foster, in collaboration with American design firm URS Corp. The facility is a low-slung structure that uses natural earth as a berm and relies on passive energy for heating and cooling, with photovoltaic panels for electricity and water-recycling capabilities. A press release describes "a rolling concrete shell that acts as a roof with massive windows opening to a stunning view of the runway and spacecraft. The terminal and hangar facility are projected to cost about $31 million, and will provide a destination experience for visitors to Spaceport America. It will include Virgin Galactic's pre-flight and post-flight training facilities and lounges, as well as the maintenance hangar for two White Knight 2 and five Spaceship 2 aircraft."

It hasn't been a good run recently for the aerospace community, with the Scaled explosion, the death last week of Paul MacCready, and now the unfolding Fossett saga. At the very least, Foster's design is a sorely needed shot in the arm.

The concept designs of Spaceport America, launch the gallery:

Inside the Spaceport's concept terminal.

An artist's rendering of the port's entrance.

A cutaway view of the concept facility.

Spaceport America is located in New Mexico, near the White Sands Missile Range.

The East entrance of the facility, extending to the runway, from a concept design.

The South entrance of the facility.

An overhead, daytime view of Spaceport America, from their concept designs.

A flight at dawn, above the Spaceport.

(Source: PopSci)