By Audie Cornish
17 July 2011
NASA's shuttle program ends when Atlantis comes back to Earth this week. It's not the end of American space exploration, however; it's the beginning of a new phase in commercial space travel.
For now, American astronauts will be hitching rides to the International Space Station on Russian Soyuz capsules. NASA and President Obama hope that won't be for long; they're counting on America's private sector to come up with a new way to get people, equipment and supplies into space.
That means there's a lot of money to be made in shuttling back and forth to the space station, and several companies are competing in a new race to space. Defense contractors like Boeing are in the game, as is Virgin Galactic — the private space tourism company owned by British business tycoon Richard Branson.
Whatever the new space vehicle is, it'll need a place to park. Enter Spaceport America, a company building a kind of airport for spaceships.
According to the people behind Spaceport America, the future of commercial space travel begins near the tiny New Mexican town of Truth or Consequences, where America's first commercial spaceport is under construction. Just outside of town, highway signs bear little yellow stickers in the shape of a rocket.
"It's kind of a mystery. We don't know who's putting those there," says David Wilson, spokesman for the state of New Mexico's Spaceport Authority. Really, he insists, it's not the spaceport.
On a 45-minute drive deep into the desert, miles of spiky grasses outline the horizon — interrupted by the occasional bison. The sky above is powder blue and clear of clouds. For decades, it's been the perfect place for pioneering rocket scientists.
"Robert Goddard brought his experiments and rockets to the New Mexican desert in the 30's for the same reasons," Wilson says. "There's this incredible weather window; there's no population out here, and then you're a mile up from sea level. We have a saying around there, 'The first mile of space is free.' It takes less energy to get to space from a place out here like this." […]