UPHAM, N.M. (AP) – A multimillion-dollar spaceport is moving toward construction in the New Mexico desert, a big step for commercial space development and tourists who will suit up for $200,000 suborbital flights.

Gov. Bill Richardson and other dignitaries staged a ceremonial groundbreaking Friday at the remote site of Spaceport America in Sierra County.

“Today will be a signal that America needs to regain its leadership in space, both in national space and commercial space,” said Gov. Bill Richardson. “Today is historic because New Mexico leads the nation in commercial space.”

From a 10,000-foot runway, spacecraft will take flight attached to an airplane, then break free and rocket 62 miles into space before returning to the New Mexico site. Flights will last about two hours and include five minutes of weightlessness.

George Nield, a Federal Aviation Administration official who oversees commercial space transportation, said seven spaceport licenses have been issued in the U.S.

California has two licenses while New Mexico, Florida, Virginia, Alaska and Oklahoma each have one.

Richardson said the New Mexico site is ahead, largely because of a partnership with Virgin Galactic, a British company that plans to take the tourists into space.

Virgin Galactic officials said Friday that 300 customers have made down payments to get launched into space. The company aims to begin taking tourists into space by December 2010.

New Mexico is making a $200 million investment in the project. Virgin Galactic, owned by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, is investing $250 million and will be the spaceport’s anchor tenant.

Lina Borozdina-Birch, who attended Friday’s ceremony, is a 40-year-old chemist from San Diego and among the first to sign up for a flight.

“I’m so excited. Until this point in my life, it’s been like a science fiction novel,” she said of the prospect of going to space.

Her dream began as she was growing up in the Soviet Union at the time when the country was locked in a space race with the United States. Borozdina-Birch said she mortgaged her home to afford the $200,000 ticket.

The spaceport will operate like an airport where aerospace companies can lease building and hangar space, said Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn.

The company’s system also will accommodate satellite launches, he said, and scientists can take off from the site to follow experiments they launch into space.

During the ceremony, about a dozen people dressed as Spanish conquistadors walked across the open plain, where construction of the runway is scheduled to begin next month.

They carried Spanish colonial flags, spears and muskets, evoking images of colonists who came through the area on the Camino Real in the 17th century.

One of the actors presented Richardson with a scroll, symbolizing the connection between the explorers of the past and those of the future.

The ceremony also featured the liftoff of model rockets by students attending a space camp.

The runway is slated for completion next summer. The terminal and hangar should be ready for tenants in December 2010.

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