Foster + Partners' Spaceport America 27.11.12

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From 2013, Virgin Galactic will offer space adventures for the 1%, including Brad Pitt, Stephen Hawking and Katy Perry. Icon went to the New Mexico desert to visit Foster + Partners’ Spaceport America, from where these sub-orbital flights for the stars will launch.

Virgin Galactic is billed as the world's first commercial space line: 529 tickets have been sold so far – one more than the number of people who have been to space to date. They cost $200,000 (£125,000) each and flights are scheduled to start next year.

The craft that will take these astronauts to sub-orbit can carry up to six space tourists, and one can imagine various dream combinations from the passenger lists that have been leaked so far: Paris Hilton, Stephen Hawking, Angelina Jolie, Princess Beatrice, Philippe Starck and Tom Hanks. It sounds like a 1970s-style disaster movie waiting to happen, crossed with the dinner party from hell. Perhaps X-Men auteur, Bryan Singer, who has reputedly also bought a ticket, could direct: the first feature film shot entirely in space.

Foster + Partners' Spaceport America, from where these affluent pioneers of the second space age will depart, sits low in the New Mexico desert like a stealth bomber at the end of the runway. It is located three-and-a-half hours north of El Paso, 30 miles from a town on the Rio Grande called Truth or Consequences, renamed from Hot Springs in 1950 for an April Fool's day radio stunt.

To the east, on the other side of a small mountain range, is the US military's White Sands Missile Complex, where the first atomic bomb was tested in 1945; the next basin over is Roswell, where some believe a UFO crashed two years later.

When I visit in August, just after the Curiosity rover successfully landed on Mars, it is 36 degrees. I am driven out to the end of the 10,000ft runway which, with hazy mirage pools that reflect the sky, seems to reach to the horizon (a concrete plant was constructed at one end to pave it). The airstrip lies parallel to the historic Camino Real, a 90-mile, week-long shortcut through the desert that was ominously known by the conquistadors as the Jornada del Muerto, the Route of the Dead Man. Before the construction of the railways, travellers cutting the long loop that follows the Rio Grande would march day and night to reduce the journey to three days and many died en route, victims of Apache attacks or the crippling heat.

The Spaceport, with its curved glass facade on the runway side, is designed to appear firmly rooted in the ground and has a long tail that blends into the landscape. "We didn't want it to appear other-worldly," says lead designer Antoinette Nassopoulos-Erickson, "but terrestrial, so that it contrasted with the spaceships." From the protected Camino Real trail, the building is intended to appear camouflaged as a mound in the desert and, when a second series of earthworks is complete, the ground will ramp up to the wings of the building to complete the disguise.

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In 1990, Foster visited Star City, the Russian cosmonaut training centre that, until recently, was the only organisation able to offer tourist flights to space (American businessman Dennis Tito reportedly paid $20m for the privilege), and he told Icon that he hopes to be one of Virgin's first space tourists. Foster was a child enthusiast of Dan Dare, the sci-fi hero of the Eagle comic ("Biggles in Space"), and it has often been remarked that its futuristic aesthetic, filtered through the work of Buckminster Fuller, has influenced his buildings.

When I put this to Foster partner and design director Grant Brooker, he remarks that his generation was more influenced by Star Wars. "It's the kind of thing you might expect to find on the desert planet of Tatooine," he says of the Spaceport.

Indeed, many of the scenes from George Lucas' film that are set on the fictional planet were shot in the Yuma desert in neighbouring Arizona, and the Spaceport shares something of Tatooine's architectural aesthetic, which combines primitive construction with high-technology. Despite seductive clean lines, it has a rugged quality – the two hangar doors, with pillbox slits for windows, are made of pre-weathered steel and bracket the building like a pair of Richard Serra's rusty Tilted Arc sculptures. The shell-like roof, a meeting of three vaulted shapes that define the two hangars and terminal, is clad in rubber sheeting covered in the camouflage paint used on military buildings. It is punctuated by a constellation of skylights and the addition of a further metallic glaze makes it sparkle in the harsh desert light.

The architects explain that their job was to create "an experience and journey for the customer/astronaut". This had to feel both mysterious and exclusive. "We basically watched The Right Stuff," Nassopoulos-Erickson says, citing Philip Kaufman's 1983 movie, an adaptation of Tom Wolfe's book about the Mercury Seven, in which Ed Harris stars as John Glenn. It told the story of how military test pilots were recruited to be America's first astronauts, under the glare of Cold War publicity, and brought a Top Gun sense of exhilaration to space travel. Virgin Galactic will compress the arduous training the Mercury Seven endured into three days of gentle preparation, but the company wants its clients to feel a similar sense of camaraderie and heroic excitement.

The Spaceport's organic form has been compared to a stingray, armadillo, horseshoe crab and vulva. It is intended to serve a ritualistic purpose: you go into the building as a wealthy client with money to burn and emerge, reborn, as an elite cosmonaut, who can proudly wear the badge awarded to those who have completed a successful spaceflight.

The future astronauts will enter the Spaceport through a narrow passageway that cuts through the mound on its western side, as if they were following the Pied Piper into the mountain. This route continues through the building as an elevated walkway that bridges the hangar so that they can look down on the planes and spaceships inside without interfering with day-to-day operations (the hangars are 18m high and have space for two mother ships, with wingspans of 25m, and five spacecraft).

"We wanted them to feel right in the action," Brooker says, "as if they were in the pit lane, able to smell the nitrous oxide that will power the rockets that will take them to space." At the front of the building are the astronaut training facilities and communal areas, with a large balcony overlooking the runway under the apron of the roof, from where they can watch other flights in the dry desert heat and prepare for their own spacewalk. Below is a glazed floor for mission control and, on the ground level, a lounge where visiting friends and family can watch lift-off.

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The sub-orbital ride itself will only take 2.5 hours. The mother ship, White Knight Two, which has two hulls linked by a central wing, will carry the spacecraft up to 52,000ft, where it will be dropped and a booster rocket fired. It will hurtle upwards at 3.5 times the speed of sound until it crosses the frontier of space, 62 miles above ground. At the top of the parabolic arc it will trace, peaking at 67 miles up, the astronauts will experience six minutes of weightlessness. The engine will fade to silence and they will be able to unfasten their seatbelts and float about the fuselage, enjoying views through the portholes of the earth glowing in its electric blue caul against the blackness of space. "In the silent tranquillity of space you will experience weightlessness and views of our beautiful planet that will change your perception of life," Richard Branson promises in a promotional film.

If this all sounds incredibly exciting and glamorous, there are unsavoury hazards that Branson does not mention. On re-entry, I'm told by my tour guide, the astronauts will experience the crushing force of accelerating at 6g – "like the mother of all rollercoaster rides" – and most of them will be violently sick in the process (NASA's training vehicle was known as the "Vomit Comet"). No complimentary drinks, pasta or chicken will be served on board. "They'll be taken straight through the hangar and in through a side entrance after they land," he says, "so that they can be cleaned up before being presented back to their families."

Spaceport America represents what is referred to as the second age of space travel. Earlier this year, NASA retired its space shuttle fleet, concentrating its resources on its missions to Mars instead. It has awarded private companies generous subsidies to help fill this gap so that they won't be dependent, as they are now, upon Russian vehicles to perform the taxi service to the International Space Station.

Silicon Valley types, such as Elon Musk, the co-founder of Paypal; Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft; and Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, have embarked on this new space race. Branson, who is planning to build a sister Spaceport in the desert near Abu Dhabi, similarly hopes that his facilities will conduct a few sub-orbital tourist flights a day and also take on lucrative contracts from NASA to serve as launch sites for satellites and payload flights.

Branson has leased the Spaceport America site for 20 years from the New Mexican government, which built it by raising $212m (£131m) in taxes. In a state with high unemployment and failing schools, this "Spaceport tax" was not without controversy: it passed a referendum with a narrow majority in only two out of three districts. Much of this money was spent on infrastructural projects such as roads and telecommunications links to the isolated, desert site. "We had to basically build a whole new city out there," Christine Anderson, executive director of the Spaceport Authority, says.

It is hard to see how the shabby neighbouring towns will benefit from the trickle-down effect. What use will all this remote infrastructure be to those that live and work there? Will the 1% condescend to stay in nearby hotels or will they helicopter in from Albuquerque or Santa Fe each day of their training? And how many other tourists will make the long pilgrimage to the desert to see Foster's building and watch flights?

Anderson says that a visitor centre is to be built in Truth or Consequences, as well as a new museum adjacent to Spaceport America that will be visited, she projects, by 200,000 people a year. Here visitors, she says, "will be able to experience space in some fashion on the ground by playing on a series of interactive exhibits".

A company from Florida that worked on the Epcot theme park has been drafted in to help create this "Disneyland-style experience". It is the closest the 99% will be able to get to space. Maybe, if the experience is good enough, the 1% – about to be launched on their own cinema-inspired adventure – won't be able to tell the difference.



Nigel Young/Foster + Partners



Christopher Turner

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We didn't want it to appear other-worldly but terrestrial, so that it contrasted with the spaceships

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