With the last Space Shuttle orbiter moved in to its Southern California retirement home, the U.S. space industry has come full circle. Only now it’s commercial interests leading the way into what John F. Kennedy in 1962 called “this new ocean” rather than the U.S. government, with satellite launches, space tourism, and other enterprises complementing NASA’s ongoing programs of research and extra-terrestrial exploration.

Of course, any journey to the starsor even just to low-Earth orbitbegins on terra firma with facilities and infrastructure. And though the original space race may have been defined by the imposing, military-inspired starkness of the Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral, the next generation of spaceports are as imaginative as the dreams of their proponents and, presumably, customers.

Leading the way is Spaceport America, the $209 million, 670,000-sq ft publicly financed complex near Las Cruces, N.M., with its centerpiece sinuous110,000-sq ft terminal hanger built by the team of Foster + Parnters and URS Corporation.

A virtual tour of Spaceport America, located near Las Cruces, N.M. Youtube video posted by hiddennook.

Operated by the New Mexico Space Authority., the “world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport” will house multi-tasking entrepreneur Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic $200,000-per-ride space tourism business, which is scheduled to transport its first passengers in late 2013, three years later than scheduled.

Construction footage of Virgin Galactic's Spaceport. Youtube video posted by nafboston.

Several experimental rockets have already utilized the facility’s launch pads, with the promise of more to come as the U.S. space business really takes off.

Just when that happens remains to be seen, however, as the hoped-for Spaceport America-fueled development nearby has so far failed to materialize, due in part to competition from nearly a dozen existing and planned spaceport facilities, each eager to get a piece of the space business market that many feel remains relatively nebulous.

In Virginia, for example, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, is making the most of several NASA-funded contracts, including a new agreement to stage resupply missions to the International Space Station. Florida is eying 150 acres adjacent to Cape Canaveral for its own commercial space facility, while the Titusville-Cocoa Airport Authority wants to take over the 15,000-ft former Shuttle landing strip for “multi-user” space-based operations.

Meanwhile rocket developer SpaceX, owners of a $440 million NASA contract to develop a successor to the Space Shuttle, has purchased land in south Texas for a possible facility. Backers of a Colorado spaceport are trying to fast-track new facilities at Front Range Airport near Denver, while newly enacted legislation in California provides new incentives for space-based industries.

Experts say it could take as long as 10 years for the nascent space industry to fully blossom, about the same amount of time it took to evolve from 15-minute vaults in Mercury capsules to walks on the Moon. It’s likely that Spaceport America and its counterparts will evolve with it, with the best managed and operated facilities garnering the most business, and the others lucky to achieve any kind of momentum.

Regardless of how long it takes, it’s probably a good idea for earthbound design and construction professionals to think about what these facilities of the future may require. There are a lot of big ideasliterally and figurativelyfor accessing space.

And experience shows that many concepts born in science fiction have a habit of becoming reality, almost as fast as they’re dreamed up. We’re a long way from Star Trek-like transporters, warp drives, or transporters. Spaceport America may well be the place where these ideas--and a broader space-based construction market--finally takes off.