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Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson expects space tourism to begin within nine to 18 months. ((Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press))

Virgin Galactic's Sir Richard Branson, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and prospective astronauts gathered in the southern New Mexico desert Friday to celebrate the completion of the runway at the world's first commercial spaceport.

Spaceport America is the world's first facility designed specifically to launch commercial spacecraft. The celebration of its three-kilometre runway comes less than two weeks after another major step for Virgin Galactic: the first solo glide flight of its space tourism rocket ship.

Branson called it an emotional and historic day. The British billionaire said he expects flights for space tourists to begin in nine to 18 months, and he will be among the first passengers.

Stretching across a flat dusty plain 72 kilometres north of Las Cruces, the runway is designed to support almost every aircraft in the world, day-to-day space tourism and payload launch operations.

Virgin Galactic, the anchor tenant of the taxpayer-funded spaceport, plans to use the facility to take tourists on what will first be short hops into space. State officials want to add companies for other commercial space endeavours, such as research and payload delivery missions.

Virgin Galactic's White Knight Two — the special jet-powered mothership that will carry SpaceShipTwo to launch altitude — also made an appearance Friday, passing over the spaceport several times before landing on the new runway.

Tickets for suborbital space rides aboard SpaceShipTwo cost $200,000. The 2½-hour flights will include about five minutes of weightlessness. Some 380 customers have already made deposits totaling more than $50 million, Virgin Galactic officials said Friday.

Branson, the president of Virgin Group, which counts airlines, entertainment and mobile communications among its businesses, partnered with famed aviation designer Burt Rutan on the venture.

Until now, space travel has been limited to astronauts and a handful of wealthy people who have shelled out millions to ride Russian rockets to the international space station.

Some of the soon-to-be space tourists attended Friday's runway dedication.

While space tourism projects such as Virgin Galactic's venture receive plenty of publicity, the commercial space industry is seeing rapid developments with companies such as SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., seeking to win NASA work to supply the International Space Station.

SpaceX has successfully placed a dummy payload in orbit and has contracts to lift satellites next. Other firms, including Masten Space Systems of Mojave, Calif., and Armadillo Aerospace of Rockwell, Tex., are testing systems that would carry unmanned payloads to space.

Last month, the U.S. Congress approved legislation that affirms President Barack Obama's intent to use commercial carriers to lift humans into near-Earth space.