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Branson breaks ground on US rocketplane spaceport

WhiteKnightTwo makes emergency landing

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Construction has begun on Richard Branson's multi-million-dollar rocketplane spaceport in the remote high-desert of southern New Mexico.

The Brit billionaire along with local dignitaries held a ceremonial groundbreaking Friday, featuring a launch of model rockets, historic reenactors dressed as Spanish colonials*, and a road grader leveling a symbolic patch of the desert floor.

When construction of Spaceport America is complete, Branson's space tourism company Virgin Galactic will begin launching passengers into suborbital space, where they will briefly experience weightlessness for $200,000 (~ £121,075) a ride**.

"After all 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."

The $198m state-funded construction project for Spaceport America is slated for completion late next year. The spaceport's 10,000-foot (3,048 meter) runway is expected to be finished next summer, and its terminal and hangar should be ready for tenants in December 2010.

State officials hope the spaceport will provide a big economic boost to New Mexico and provide long-term jobs in science, math, and high tech industries.

Virgin Galactic, meanwhile, is investing about $250m into the deal and will become the spaceport's principal tenant.

Virgin's officials said about 300 customers have already made down payments for a sub-orbital cruise.

WhiteKnight Two makes emergency landing

But there was one important guest missing from Friday's ceremony.

WhiteKnightTwo, the prototype "mothership" carrier jet designed to launch Virgin's commercial spacecraft, was forced to make an emergency landing while en route to the ceremony.

The aircraft made its unexpected landing at the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway airport in Arizona after an actuator warning light came on, The Arizona Republic reports. WhiteKnight Two was scheduled to fly over the groundbreaking ceremony.

The two pilots aboard were not injured and reportedly asked airport authorities not to allow pictures be taken of the grounded WhiteKnightTwo by nearby photographers who were tracking test aircraft at Mesa.

Their request went unheeded, however, as the officials had no authority to stop photos being snapped from outside the airport's secured areas. ®

*Americans have inherited the British obsession with costumed historic reenactment and thus are required at all public events.

**To accurately re-create this sensation at home for less, simply toss $199,999 in cash out the window. You'll soon realize you've lost your sense of gravity completely.

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