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Virgin Galactic poised for NM landing

Sir Richard Branson lifts Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham as Virgin Galactic procurement specialist Kevin Prieto takes a selfie. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Virgin Galactic is moving its spaceships and about 100 of its employees to Spaceport America this summer to prepare for launch of the world’s first space tourism operation.

Virgin Founder Sir Richard Branson announced the move Friday morning in a news conference with New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in Santa Fe, marking a major milestone in the company’s 14-year effort to fly paying passengers to suborbit from southern New Mexico.

“With today’s announcement, New Mexico is becoming the first place to regularly launch humans into space on flights conducted by a private company,” Branson told a crowd of media representatives, industry executives, space enthusiasts, and local and state officials.

Commercial launches with tourists on board could still be a ways off. But the company will now continue its flight test program in New Mexico at Spaceport America near Upham, about 50 miles north of Las Cruces.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks at a Friday news conference to announce that Virgin Galactic is moving operations to New Mexico as Sir Richard Branson, forefront, Spaceport America CEO Dan Hicks and Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides look on. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The company has planned to establish its permanent operations there since 2005, when Branson struck a deal with then-Gov. Bill Richardson to become the anchor tenant for the future spaceport, which had yet to be built.

Over the years, the state has pumped more than $220 million into the facility, building a 12,000-foot horizontal runway for Virgin Galactic’s flights to space, a futuristic hangar and operations center for the company, and a vertical launch area for other firms.

About half a dozen commercial companies now operate at the spaceport, such as UP Aerospace, which regularly flies payloads into suborbit from the vertical launch area.

Others are testing new rockets and launch vehicles, including Boeing, Exos Aerospace, and a new tenant that arrived this week, SpinLaunch Inc. That company broke ground on a $7 million facility on Tuesday, where it will test a novel “space catapult” that, if successful, could immensely lower costs for launching satellites by literally flinging rockets into space.

Liking NM’s tenacity

Branson praised New Mexico’s tenacity in successfully constructing and operating the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport, giving the state a leading role in the emerging private space industry.

Virgin Galactic’s mothership WhiteKnightTwo with passenger craft SpaceShipTwo tethered to the underbelly sits in front of Virgin Galactic’s hangar at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico. (Courtesy of Virgin Galactic)

He said Virgin Galactic is now ready to uphold its end of the 14-year-old bargain by moving operations here from the Mojave Air and Space Port in Southern California where it’s headquartered.

“New Mexico built a world-first, world-class spaceport,” Branson said. “We’re now fully ready to bring you a world-class space line. Virgin Galactic is coming to New Mexico, and it’s coming home now.”

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said the company is ready, given its last two successful flights to space in December and February.

“We decided now is the right time,” Whitesides said. “Our most recent flight represented a huge step forward.”

Passenger on flight

Apart from the two pilots that fly the company’s spacecraft, a third passenger, Virgin Galactic Chief Flight Instructor Beth Moses, participated in the February flight to suborbit, marking the first time someone has flown to space in the cabin where paying passengers will sit on future flights.

Moses evaluated cabin dynamics during the test, something the company will now aggressively pursue going forward to prepare for commercial operations.

“We want to open up space to change the world for good,” said Moses, who showed a video of the February flight during Friday’s event in Santa Fe.

Virgin Galactic will bring its mothership, the VMS Eve, and the passenger spacecraft VSS Unity to the spaceport over the summer, once cabin interior and other work has been completed by The Spaceship Co., Virgin’s spacecraft manufacturing firm. The engineering firm will remain in southern California, where it’s now building two more passenger spaceships and another mothership.

Under Virgin Galactic’s system, the mothership carries the VSS Unity on its underbelly to about 45,000 feet. The Unity then separates from the VMS Eve and fires up its rockets to shoot into suborbit at 50 miles up.

The company will charge $250,000 per passenger, providing space tourists with a few minutes of gravity-free floating time in space and spectacular views of the Earth’s curvature. About 600 people have already prepaid to reserve seats on future flights.

Global plans

The Spaceship Co. is also building a separate system to fly satellites into low-earth orbit. Like the space tourism operation, satellites will be launched from a spacecraft tethered to the belly of a mothership, in this case a modified Boeing 747-400.

Virgin Galactic has been establishing flight agreements with other spaceports around the world to manage the satellite launch operations. It hopes to eventually link up space flights through a global network of spaceports that could revolutionize air travel, allowing people to fly across the world in just a couple of hours.

The company aims to “open and democratize” space for commercial operations everywhere, Branson said.

“The first commercial spaceflight (in New Mexico) is important, but it’s just the start,” Branson said. “We want to prepare Virgin Galactic and the spaceport for the next chapter in commercial space aviation to become linked with a global network of spaceports, connecting the world like never before.”

About 100 Virgin Galactic employees will immediately begin relocating to New Mexico to join about 45 who are already here, bringing the company’s total local workforce to about 150 by the end of the summer, Whitesides said.

“The staff will be moving over the summer to support the team here and integrate into New Mexico,” Whitesides said. “We still have to finish the flight test program, but we’re on the final stretch, and we’ll do that in New Mexico.”

‘Getting really close’

The company still won’t say when it will begin commercial operations with paying passengers.

This file photo shows Virgin Galactic reaching space for the first time during its fourth powered flight from Mojave, Calif. The aircraft called VSS Unity reached an altitude of 271,268 feet, reaching the lower altitudes of space. (AP Photo/Matt Hartman)

“But we’re getting really close,” Whitesides said.

Gov. Lujan Grisham said Virgin Galactic’s move to New Mexico will have a big impact on the state economy.

“Virgin Galactic’s announcement today is an incredibly exciting development for both our state’s economic future and the future of aerospace in general,” the governor said in a prepared statement. “With these workers here and with these plans firmly in place, I’m certain New Mexico will serve as the launchpad for the rapid industry growth we’ve been expecting for so many years. Today marks the beginning of the next chapter of aerospace in New Mexico.”

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