Many of the 800 people on Virgin Galactic’s flight waiting list have had reservations for more than a decade.
New Mexicans have waited even longer for the $225 million Spaceport America and its anchor tenant to turn a profit.
Although we’ve been disappointed before, Virgin Galactic and the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport that officially opened in October 2011 could finally be on the cusp of a defining moment for both.
Virgin Galactic is headed back to space this month with a six-person crew that includes Native New Mexican Jamila Gilbert. The 34-year-old Gilbert, who grew up in Las Cruces, isn’t a typical mission specialist. She’s a linguistics, anthropology and studio arts graduate of New Mexico State University who previously conducted tourist tours for “Visit Las Cruces” before joining Virgin Galactic in 2019.
“They’re ‘diverse’ in regard to their individual points of view and disciplines, which allows them to see and experience things differently,” Virgin Galactic spokesman Jeff Michael said of the crew. “Jamila Gilbert most clearly represents our customers, most of whom are not engineers. She’s decidedly from the creative side.”
If all goes well, the company’s final test flight in late May will be followed in late June by its first-ever flight with paying passengers from the Italian Air Force, who will conduct research and training. That research-and-training flight with Italian astronauts, dubbed “Galactic 1,” will pave the way for monthly suborbital flights in July or August.
“Our excitement continues to build,” Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier told investors during a first-quarter earnings conference call on May 9. “We’re finally at the cusp of a defining moment for the company with commercial operations set to begin.”
The company has spent the past 18 months upgrading and modifying both its VSS Unity spaceship and VMS Eve mothership to improve vehicle durability and reliability before initiating tourist flights. Its last suborbital flight was nearly two years ago, when company founder Sir Richard Branson flew from Spaceport America in July 2021.
It’s been a long wait, but space-tourism could finally be here this summer with monthly suborbital flights launched from Spaceport America’s 12,000-foot runway. The flights cost up to $450,000 apiece. Taxpayers will see little benefit because the expensive tickets are not subject to gross receipts taxes.
As an incentive for growing the state’s space industry, New Mexico lawmakers exempted “payloads” launched from spaceport from being subject to GRTs. But they made no distinction between commercial and human cargo. With Virgin Galactic expecting to generate $2.7 million for every six-passenger space flight, that’s a pretty big tax loophole.
A bipartisan bill to close that loophole was grounded by a House committee in 2022. The Journal Editorial Board supported the initial exemptions on taxes, but hopes state lawmakers will take another look at closing the loophole as the space industry takes off. Then, all New Mexicans can benefit from the trips to the edge of space, and not just the few who actually experience microgravity and breathtaking views of the Earth’s curvature.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.