|Space tourism moves a step closer to becoming a reality with the opening of the spaceport runway [Reuters]
A new runway has been completed at the world's first spaceport in a remote region in the US state of New Mexico, pushing space tourism closer to becoming a reality.
Richard Branson, the British tycoon, opened the 3.2km-long main runway at Spaceport America near the town of Las Cruces on Friday.
Branson marked the event, which was attended by Bill Richardson, the New Mexico governor, saying it was "the beginning of the second space age".
"We are proud to have been supporters of this part of the story. From here we will see, perhaps daily flights into space, but also scientists, explorers of new opportunities beyond our planet," Branson said.
Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon, told the AFP news agency: "I am very happy that civilians will be able to reach space. I'd like to be one of the passengers on these flights, of course."
SpaceShipTwo, a six-seat craft scheduled to carry paying customers into sub-orbital space by early 2012, made its maiden flight above the Californian desert in March.
The aircraft - renamed the VSS Enterprise - flew high above the new 60-metre wide runway in tandem with its mothership, WhiteKightTwo or Eve.
The spaceship is 18 metres long and its cabin is similar in size to a Falcon 900 executive jet, "allowing maximum room for the astronauts to float in zero gravity", according to Virgin Galactic.
When it takes off, WhiteKnightTwo will carry SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of around 15km before dropping the smaller spaceship and allowing it to fire up its rocket motor to blast up to the brink of space.
Once it has reached sub-orbital space, SpaceShipTwo passengers will be able to view the Earth from portholes next to their seats, or unbuckle their seatbelts and float in zero gravity.
Guests for Friday's ceremony included people who have already paid deposits to go into space.
Branson said the company started taking deposits from people wanting to become astronauts in 2005, and has now collected $50m in deposits from more than 380 people willing to pay the $200,000 ticket price.
"Two hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money, but I think it's a fair price for this life experience," Devek Handley, 32, a New Zealand entrepreneur, said.
Igor Kutsenko, 36, a Russian advertising company boss, said he plans to go into space with his 57-year-old mother and 59-year-old father.
"We will travel together as soon as Virgin Galactic makes space travel a reality. This has been the dream of my life," Kutsenko said.
He said he had paid a deposit of $150,000 each.