Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SPACEPORT AMERICA – Virgin Galactic’s mother ship VMS Eve soared across the southern New Mexico desert above Spaceport America Thursday morning conducting test maneuvers in preparation for commercial space flights the company plans to launch here.
Company pilots flew Eve on Monday from the Mojave Air and Space Port in Southern California to Virgin Galactic’s new operations center at the New Mexico spaceport near Upham, about 50 miles north of Las Cruces. The mother ship will carry the company’s passenger rocket, VSS Unity, part of the way to space when commercial flights with paying customers begin.
It’s now permanently parked in the hangar at Virgin Galactic’s newly opened “Gateway to Space” – a three-story, futuristic operations center that the company unveiled for the first time on Thursday to select members of the media.
“It’s a historic day,” said Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides, who told journalists that the Spaceport has now reached “operational readiness.”
It’s still unclear how soon commercial flights to suborbit will begin. The Unity is still in California, where the company is finishing work on the interior cabin. In a few months, the company expects to move it to New Mexico, where more testing will be done before commercial flights can begin.
The company said in May that it would move about 100 employees from its Mojave operations to New Mexico this summer to join about 45 people already working here.
“We have about 89 folks in the state now,” Whitesides said. “We have another 50 to 60 people still to go, but we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress this summer. We have a lot of people reporting to work here every day.”
Company executives offered a guided tour of two of the center’s three floors, including the facility’s huge spacecraft hangar, a social gathering area on the ground floor and mission control on the second story.
The hangar is sandwiched between the center’s east and west wings, and is large enough to fit two mother ships, each with 140-foot wingspans, plus five passenger spaceships. The hangar includes a flight simulation area, plus engineering and avionics labs.
An enclosed bridge near the ceiling provides a walkway connecting the center’s east and west sides.
The entire operations facility was designed around the hanger, with windows on all floors looking down into it to allow everyone in the building, including customers, to feel connected and involved, said Virgin Galactic Vice President Julia Hunter.
“We want everyone to feel like an integrated team, so we put the hangar right in the middle where everything is happening,” Hunter said. “There’s windows everywhere, so everyone gets to be a part of it all.”
A short passageway with a lighted, interactive floor connects the hangar to the center’s lounge and social gathering area. The company named that area Gaia after the Greek goddess of Earth to represent a point of departure and return, as well as the point of each astronaut’s journey, said Virgin Galactic Design Director Jeremy Brown.
“The interactive floor in the passageway creates designs to feed the imagination,” Brown said. “We want to emphasize themes of infinity that almost make you feel weightless as you walk through.”
Gaia’s west side is made of floor-to-ceiling windows with unobstructed views of the horizontal runway where the mother ships will take off with spaceships attached to their undersides. Spectacular views of the San Andres Mountains loom in the distance.
Inside, the architectural design was combined with brown and sandstone color palettes to elicit a grounded, Earth-focused feeling for both departing and returning astronauts. The entire room is arranged to promote social interaction and create a sense of togetherness, making it the social hub of the building. It includes a “barista island” in the center for coffee and beverages, with an open restaurant area.
“People will bond together here,” Brown said. “Astronauts and their families will be greeted by a friendly face at the barista island every morning.”
The second floor, which houses the center’s mission control, is named Cirrus, representing light, air and flight. In contrast to Gaia, Cirrus includes lighter white and gray shades, reflecting the skies beyond.
“It’s the heart of the operation,” said Virgin Galactic President Mike Moses.
Although surrounded by windows, the mission control room itself is enclosed to avoid distractions as engineers and technicians help guide flights.
The second floor also houses the center’s pilot corps, an operations desk and a mission briefing room. And like Gaia, Cirrus includes floor-to-ceiling windows offering panoramic views of the runway and landscape below.
The opening of the company’s Gateway to Space and the arrival of the mother ship in New Mexico brings Virgin Galactic another major step closer to starting commercial service, said Chief Pilot Dave Mackay.
“VMS Eve has become the first Virgin Galactic flight vehicle to permanently call the Land of Enchantment its home,” Mackay said in a blog. “The team has been busy getting Spaceport America ready for commercial service, installing the ground infrastructure and then conducting ground tests of all the systems to ensure they are flight-ready. The arrival of VMS Eve in New Mexico signifies the start of the next important phase – mother ship operations prior to (Spaceship Unity VSS’s own) flight operations.”
That includes the high- and low-altitude maneuvers that Eve pilots performed Thursday morning.
VMS Eve will return to Mojave later this year to pick up Spaceship Unity, Mackay said.
“When both vehicles are in place in New Mexico, we will continue Unity’s flight test program,” he said. “Following the completion of that program, we will move to the start of commercial service and begin flying our future astronauts into space.
Under Virgin Galactic’s system, the mother ship will carry Unity to about 45,000 feet up, at which point the spaceship detaches from Eve and fires up its rockets to shoot into space, where paying passengers will be able to float for a few minutes in microgravity and view the curvature of the Earth.
To date, more than 600 customers from 60 countries have bought tickets to fly at $250,000 apiece.