Fri Jun 19, 2009 6:26pm EDT
PHOENIX (Reuters) - New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson broke ground on Friday on construction of Spaceport America, the world's first facility built specifically for space-bound commercial customers and fee-paying passengers.
The $198 million project, which is being funded by the New Mexico state government, is located on a remote high-desert range near the town of Truth or Consequences.
British tycoon Richard Branson's space tours firm, Virgin Galactic, will use the facility to propel tourists into suborbital space at a cost of $200,000 a ride.
"After all of the hard work to get this project off the ground, it is gratifying to see Spaceport America finally become a reality," Richardson said.
"This groundbreaking ceremony is an important step toward our goal of being at the forefront of a vibrant new, commercial space industry."
Construction will begin with a runway at the site, followed by a terminal and hangar facility later in the year, Spaceport America said.
Virgin Galactic is investing more than $300 million in developing a new space launch system that will operate from the site after it opens.
The spaceship hitches a ride up to around 50,000 feet attached to a specially designed carrier aircraft. When released from the aircraft, it is designed to hurtle into suborbital space powered by a rocket.
Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn said the firm already had taken some 300 advanced bookings and planned to begin flights from the spaceport within two years.
The spaceport site was first used for a successful commercial launch in 2007, with a rocket bearing the ashes of Actor James Doohan, who played the Starship Enterprise's chief engineer Scotty on "Star Trek."
After floating back to Earth, the rocket was lost for three weeks in the vast expanse of mountainous desert surrounding the site.
(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; editing by Bill Trott)