About 30 miles from Truth or Consequences, the funky, hot springs mecca in southern New Mexico, Virgin Galactic has -- finally, some might say -- begun finishing its hangar and top secret, paying-astronauts-only lounge at the $250 million Spaceport America that New Mexico built nearly a decade ago to house Richard Branson's space tourism venture.
To the west, in Tucson, Ariz., a company called World View Enterprises has opened its own spaceport and a helium balloon manufacturing facility for its stratospheric balloon operations, which include plans to float tourists to the edge of space for gentle, two-hour rides that will enable them to view the curvature of the Earth while sipping cocktails in comfortable, spacious cabins.
Jeff Bezos, at the West Texas launch facility before the Blue Origin'S maiden voyage.
To the east, in the West Texas desert, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin is developing its own spacecraft with the intention of offering ordinary, albeit well-heeled, citizens the opportunity to rocket into space.
And in California, Elon Musk's SpaceX recently announced plans to take two high-paying customers (whom he has yet to identify) on a flight around the moon within two years. He also published a paper last month outlining plans to take people to Mars as early as 2030.
From Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates to Oklahoma, spaceports are being built and old regional airports converted to support the possibility of growing space tourism and commercial space businesses, which, in addition to joyrides for the rich and adventurous, hold long-term prospects of dramatically slashing commercial air travel and cargo transportation times and creating a new category for travel and tourism in space-based resorts.
While the Great Recession, a fatal accident and a few doses of plain old reality dramatically slowed the initial projections by Branson, Musk and others of getting civilians into space by 2011, things are quietly heating up. Players across the commercial space industry are voicing cautious optimism that these much-delayed dreams are inching toward reality.
"I think we are getting much, much closer," said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, predicting passengers will be flying "within two years."
"Unfortunately, about 10 or 11 years ago .... everyone thought it was just imminent. ... It has taken a lot longer to get off the ground," he said. "On the positive side, the companies involved want to do it right. They know if they have any kind of mishap they will jeopardize the entire business."
Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson plans to be on the company’s first commercial flight.
Indeed, Branson, the flamboyant and eternally optimistic founder of Virgin Galactic, dramatically tempered his seemingly endless projections of "next year" for beginning Virgin Galactic's $250,000-per-person flights into space after the company's SpaceShip Two broke apart on a test flight over the Mojave Desert in 2014, killing one of its two pilots.
Although the company has stopped issuing predictions for when its first paying passenger will be launched, it has begun testing its replacement craft in the Mojave Desert. And Branson, who plans to be on the first flight, told the Telegraph newspaper in London in April that he'd "be very disappointed if we're not into space with a test flight by the end of the year and I'm not into space myself next year and the program isn't well underway by the end of next year."