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Las Vegas real estate investor Ken “Rocket Man” Baxter, seen with Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, paid $200,000 to become Virgin Galactic’s first ticketed passenger to fly into outer space. Credit: Ken Baxter.

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Spaceport America, located 180 miles south of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is one of nearly a dozen licensed spaceports in the United States. The Federal Aviation Administration has more spaceport licenses under review. Credit: Spaceport America

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The world’s first-ever reflown orbital rocket booster, a SpaceX game changer, arrives in port in April 2017. Credit: SpaceX

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Virgin Galactic’s Unity spaceplane took off on April 5 from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California reaching a top speed of Mach 1.87 during its 30-second rocket burn. “Space feels tantalisingly close now,” Richard Branson declared after the milestone flight. Credit: Virgin Galactic

The space race between the United States and the Soviet Union hadn't even taken off when the small town of Hot Springs, New Mexico, famously voted to change its name to Truth or Consequences after the popular game show. Nearly 70 years after that publicity stunt, the unusual name has stuck, but Truth or Consequences these days is known as the city closest to a $225 million facility that's competing in the modern-day space race. Located in the remote high desert, Spaceport America bills itself as "the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport."

“We have as humans an inherent pioneering spirit about us”

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British billionaire Richard Branson is founder of Virgin Galactic. Flights for space tourists climbed to $250,000 a ticket in 2013. Passengers will go through training, but departure dates have not been announced. Credit: Virgin Galactic

“We have as humans an inherent pioneering spirit about us,” said Chris Lopez, vice president of site operations at Spaceport America.

Just like an airport, it's publicly-owned by the state of New Mexico, and just like an airline, Virgin Galactic, led by British business magnate Richard Branson, pays fees to use the spaceport.

"Space feels tantalisingly close now," Branson declared with his U.K.-preferred spelling on Twitter after Virgin Galactic's rocket-powered spaceplane Unity reached supersonic speeds in a test flight this month above California.

“I absolutely bought the first ticket in 2004,” said Ken Baxter, a Las Vegas real estate investor. After seeing a profile on CBS' 60 Minutes, Baxter reached out to Branson, becoming Virgin Galactic's first ticketed passenger for $200,000.

“I still have his cell number in my phone. How cool is that?” Baxter told Aliyah Media. “Rocket Man,” as Baxter is known, is as excited today as he was 14 years ago when Branson first called him.

Celebrities like Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Ashton Kutcher also made their ritzy reservations to blast off from Spaceport America. Prices climbed to $250,000 a pop, but a fatal accident involving a rocket four years ago in California meant an on-time departure was not in the cards.

As for Virgin Galactic's new timeline, Baxter said, “These guys are not saying anything.”

No longer are Cold War adversaries fighting for final frontier bragging rights, but the top innovators are other billionaire tycoons with star-reaching investments.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame plans to deliver a service that launches civilians into outer space. Blue Origin, his spaceflight services company, announced last fall that it plans to take ordinary citizens--not highly-trained astronauts--into space by April 2019.

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Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, founded Blue Origin in 2000. Credit: Blue Origin

SpaceX, founded by Tesla's Elon Musk, is reusing rockets, driving down the cost of space travel, ultimately envisioning a time when people can live on other planets, including Mars. SpaceX's lunar space mission set for this year originally included plans to fly two humans around the moon.

The federal government has embraced privatization of space exploration. President Trump's Space Policy Directive 1 instructs NASA to partner with the commercial industry to return Americans to the moon. Still, fast-advancing technology will likely lead to the creation of a “space czar” within the U.S. Department of Commerce this summer to oversee commercial space regulation, according to the White House.

Billionaire Pioneers: To Infinity and Beyond  
Richard Branson
Virgin Galactic Twitter Logo white 01 @VirginGalactic
Jeff Bezos
Blue Origin Twitter Logo white 01 @blueorigin
Elon Musk
SpaceX Twitter Logo white 01 @SpaceX

Spaceport America has had 101 launches since 2006, Lopez said.

“When new transformative industries were first launched in our history, many people did not see the total possibilities. Can you imagine someone saying we don't need a horseless carriage?” Lopez asked.

On that note, a few years ago, no one could have imagined 2018 would bring a Tesla Roadster blasting off in Florida aboard SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket. Musk’s car is now in orbit 2.5 million miles from Earth.

“I was a kid, and I watched every single space shot. I lived for it, and I was so excited to get to outer space,” said Baxter, now 68. Space odyssey-seekers like him are confident their countdown to liftoff is closer than ever before.

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