Virgin Galactic announces 'astronaut campus' in New Mexico - Albuquerque Journal

Virgin Galactic announces ‘astronaut campus’ in New Mexico

Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity breaks away from its mother ship and heads for the edge of space on July 11, 2021, after taking off from Spaceport America. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Virgin Galactic is planning a new astronaut campus and training facility in southern New Mexico where its high-dollar customers will prepare for their rides into suborbit, the company announced Tuesday morning.

The firm has already acquired land in Sierra County for the facility, described as a “first of its kind astronaut campus, for exclusive use by Virgin Galactic Future Astronauts and up to three of their guests in advance of a spaceflight from Spaceport America.” Customers who buy tickets to space aboard Virgin’s passenger rocket – which were selling at $450,000 per seat earlier this year – will stay and train at the campus for five nights.

“At Virgin Galactic, the road to space begins in New Mexico, and we are proud to showcase the state as the launch point for our unique and unparalleled experience,” said Blair Rich, Virgin Galactic president and chief business officer, commercial and consumer operations, in a prepared statement. “From the point of sale, our Future Astronauts begin a journey that is curated, high-touch and distinctly Virgin, which will culminate at the astronaut campus and training facility.”

The campus will be built on top of a mesa not far from the spaceport, the company wrote in a release. No timeline for the project has been released, although Virgin Galactic said “conceptual design” of the project is underway.

A company spokeswoman declined to provide an expected dollar amount for the campus, which will include training facilities, accommodations, an observatory, a wellness center, recreation activities and dining options.

“We’re not sharing the specifics of the agreement, but this is an important investment we’re making in the State of New Mexico as the launch point for our unparalleled experience,” spokeswoman Aleanna Crane wrote in an email Tuesday morning.

The company didn’t provide an exact location or size of the land. But Crane said only a small portion of it will be used for the new facility.

“We are purchasing significantly more land than we intend to build on in order to preserve the spectacular natural surroundings, which are central to the planned experience,” Crane said in an email.

Virgin Galactic’s Unity 22 ship takes off from Spaceport America in July 2021. The company is planning a new astronaut campus and training facility in southern New Mexico, where its high-dollar customers will prepare for their rides into suborbit. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Ramping up

The announcement comes as Virgin Galactic ramps up preparations for its full-scale commercial launch.

Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson grabbed headlines last year by flying to suborbit aboard the company’s passenger rocket along with a crew. But since then, the company has been retooling and upgrading its airships. And, plagued by supply-chain and workforce problems, the company has pushed out the start date for its regular space tourism flights. In May, company leaders announced they would not begin passenger service until winter 2023.

Last month, Virgin Galactic announced a deal with Boeing to build two additional carrier aircraft, as well as a long-term lease in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa for a spaceship manufacturing facility.

Virgin uses a horizontal launch technology, where a passenger rocket is carried up to about 50,000 feet on the underbelly of a carrier “mothership.” The rocket then breaks away and fires up its motors to shoot into suborbit. Once there, passengers on the rocket spend a few minutes floating in microgravity and taking in views of the Earth and its curvature before gliding back to the ground.

The company is expected to present its next quarterly earnings statement to shareholders and members of the public on Thursday. Leaders reported a net loss of $93 million in the first quarter of 2022.

Local reception

State and industry leaders welcomed the news Tuesday.

“I’m thrilled to welcome the next chapter of Virgin Galactic’s continued investment in New Mexico,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “The new astronaut campus in Sierra County will spur further economic activity for New Mexico, creating more local jobs and attracting new visitors and spending to the area. New Mexico is proud to be home to the future of aerospace innovation and space tourism.”

Dale Dekker, a local architect and co-founder of booster group Ambassadors for Spaceport America, said he was “pleasantly surprised” at the news.

“I think it’s fantastic for New Mexico,” Dekker said. “… I think it shows Virgin’s ongoing commitment to Spaceport America and New Mexico that they would be investing in an astronaut campus.”

Dekker said he expects the project’s economic impact will spill over into neighboring communities.

“It’ll probably spawn a whole bunch of additional small business activity in that whole TorC and Las Cruces area,” he said. “… It also has that multiplier effect in the local economy.”

Scott McLaughlin, executive director of New Mexico Spaceport Authority – which oversees the Spaceport, where Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant – said the news emphasizes the company’s ties to the region.

“Virgin Galactic has been a long-term partner for Spaceport America and southern New Mexico,” McLaughlin said in a prepared statement. “The announcement of the astronaut campus reinforces this commitment and increases the economic impact in the region. We look forward to full operations later this year and into 2023.”

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