A new era in space travel

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Spaceport America is getting ready to to launch VSS Unity into space Sunday morning. Pictured is the mission control room for the mission. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

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The vehicle that will be used for Sunday’s mission sits in the main hangar at Spaceport America. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

When Sir Richard Branson boards Virgin Galactic’s passenger rocket at Spaceport America on Sunday, it could mark the dawn of a new era in human space travel, and New Mexico is ground zero for the historic event.

Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceship is set for takeoff at about 7 a.m. with two pilots and a four-member crew in the passenger cabin that includes Branson, the British billionaire who founded the space company in 2004.

If the rocket successfully reaches space at 50 miles up, Branson would become the first civilian to fly into suborbit on a commercial spacecraft purposely built to carry paying passengers on joyrides to the edge of space. Once there, space tourists will be able to float for a few minutes in microgravity and take in spectacular views of the Earth’s curvature below before gliding back down to the spaceport.

Virgin Galactic has always touted Branson’s long-awaited flight as the turning point for the company to fully transition into commercial service following nearly 17 years of research and development to build a safe, proven system for civilian rocket rides to space. Once Unity returns to Earth and Branson unbuckles from his cabin seat to descend back onto the tarmac, the dream of making space accessible to all will become a reality, the billionaire said.

“I truly believe space belongs to all of us,” Branson said in a prepared statement on July 1, when Virgin Galactic announced Sunday’s flight. “After more than 16 years of research, engineering and testing, Virgin Galactic stands at the vanguard of a new commercial space industry, which is set to open space to humankind and change the world for good.”

Tourists in space

Indeed, Branson’s flight is the first of three tourist rocket trips to space planned for the next three months, converting summer 2021 into the starting point for 21st century commercial space travel.

Billionaire Jeff Bezos plans to fly to suborbit with three other passengers on July 20 from West Texas aboard his New Shepard rocket, kicking off commercial service for paying passengers by Bezos’ space company, Blue Origin.

And Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, plans to launch four passengers in September on a three-day orbital flight around the Earth. That will be followed in coming months by a SpaceX trip to the International Space Station that the company Axiom Space booked for three more customers.

Until now, SpaceX has flown only trained astronauts to the space station under contracts with NASA.

As for Virgin Galactic, the company plans two more space flights this year, including one more test run for Unity later this summer, followed by a flight in the fall that will carry four passengers from the Italian Air Force to conduct experiments in microgravity and provide astronaut training.

The fall flight will represent Virgin Galactic’s first true commercial launch for paying passengers. But the company won’t actually begin full space tourism services until early next year, after a four-month hiatus for upgrades and maintenance on Unity, and on the mothership Eve, which carries the Unity on its underbelly to about 50,000 feet, where the rocket breaks away from Eve and fires up its motors to shoot into space.

Historic moment

For now, however, the world’s eyes are riveted on Branson’s flight, which the company is livestreaming for a global audience for the first time on its website and YouTube. (It’s also available at ABQJournal.com).

It’s a historic moment for the emerging commercial space industry in general, and for New Mexico in particular, said Dale Dekker of architecture firm Dekker/Perich/Sabatini. Dekker co-founded Ambassadors for Spaceport America, a group that unites about 400 local professionals, businesspeople and enthusiasts to promote the spaceport and the state’s budding space industry.

“It’s a new dawn for space,” Dekker told the Journal. “It opens up a whole new industry and future for people on Earth, and it’s happening right here in New Mexico. It puts us on a global stage, with Spaceport America at the pinnacle.”

Virgin Galactic invited 500 guests to attend the launch at the spaceport. Las Cruces and Truth or Consequences are also hosting public “watch parties” in their cities.

‘A huge celebration’

State officials hope Branson’s launch will kick off a new wave of tourism in southern New Mexico, with even bigger crowds gathering for future passenger flights.

“With 500 guests onsite, plus all of Virgin Galactic’s people and contracted personnel, this launch is already having a significant economic impact,” spaceport Executive Director Scott McLaughlin told the Journal. “Hotels are filled. It’s a huge celebration that Virgin Galactic wants to generate with all its future flights.”

Enthusiasts have been gathering since last week, potentially generating an overall $400,000 economic impact just in Las Cruces, based on hotel occupancy rates and past visitor spending forecasts, according to the city.

That’s the kind of tourism-related benefit New Mexico officials have hoped for since constructing the spaceport a decade ago. The state spent about $225 million to build the facility, which is located about 45 miles north of Las Cruces.

Now, with Virgin Galactic on the verge of commercial launch – plus more than half a dozen other space-related companies also operating at the spaceport – taxpayers could begin to see a real return on their investment, said Economic Development Secretary Alicia J. Keyes.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Keyes told the Journal. “We’ve been preparing for this for more than 16 years and now it’s time to focus on the future of space tourism, which can become a magnet for many more companies to operate out of the spaceport. It’s all about diversifying our economy, and (Branson’s launch) is helping us with global publicity for everyone to know about Spaceport America.”

Hopeful outlook

Of course, Branson and the Virgin Galactic crew must still successfully fly to space and back Sunday morning. But the company is confident its extensive testing has fully prepared the passenger rocket, mothership and Virgin teams for safe, smooth operations.

This will be Unity’s 22nd flight since 2016. That includes glide tests and rocket-powered flights that culminated in three successful launches into space, the last of which occurred on May 22 at the spaceport.

“For the past two to three weeks, Virgin Galactic and spaceport staff have been working 24/7 to get ready for this flight,” McLaughlin said. “Virgin Galactic has repeatedly practiced everything with full dress rehearsals. It’s looking like good weather for the flight and we expect a smooth operation.”

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