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Virgin Galactic preparing for an economic takeoff

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

LAS CRUCES – As Virgin Galactic prepares to launch the test flights it believes will be its final push to space, the company is slowly ramping up operations in southern New Mexico.

“There is a reasonably clear path toward the start of operations,” Virgin Galactic Commercial Director Stephen Attenborough recently told the Journal. “We are looking at everything to move the operation from Mojave (Calif.) to New Mexico.”

Hotel Encanto in Las Cruces has been chosen as the preferred hotel for those who take planned commercial spaceflights from Spaceport America.  (Albuquerque Journal File)

Hotel Encanto in Las Cruces has been chosen as the preferred hotel for those who take planned commercial spaceflights from Spaceport America. (Albuquerque Journal File)

The company striving to become the world’s first commercial spaceline recently announced its first two hospitality contracts with Las Cruces businesses, as well as three new job openings here. Attenborough said he expects the 12-person operation to grow to 70 people once commercial flights begin from Spaceport America.

The schedule for that to happen has been uncertain, as the technical challenges of safely rocketing Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo to the edge of space have drawn out the timeline. But Attenborough echoed what the company has been saying for months: that it expects to fly billionaire Virgin Galactic owner Richard Branson by the end of the year.

“We expect things to happen fairly rapidly now, with the caveat that we’ll need to respond to little things that might come up in the test flight program,” Attenborough said. “We’re not driven by deadlines, but we have an achievable pathway to fly Richard by the end of this year.”

Virgin Galactic has been running its test flight program out of Mojave, Calif. The company does not reveal its

Virgin Galactic is stepping up its operations in southern New Mexico as it prepares for flights to the edge of space from Spaceport America.  (Albuquerque Journal File)

Virgin Galactic is stepping up its operations in southern New Mexico as it prepares for flights to the edge of space from Spaceport America. (Albuquerque Journal File)

schedule, but a series of test flights is expected to occur this summer.

The last reported test flight, in January, took SpaceShip-Two to an altitude of 71,000 feet. The boundary of what is considered space varies around the world, but in the United States, it means reaching 250,000 feet.

Bill Allen, executive director of the Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce, said local businesses are gearing up to compete for contracts that will likely come with Virgin Galactic’s move to the region.

Virgin Galactic recently named Hotel Encanto its “official” hotel for customers paying upward of $200,000 for a seat on the spaceship and selected chef Tatsu Miyazaki, owner of two Las Cruces restaurants, to cater meals at the company’s spaceport terminal near Truth or Consequences.

Beyond hospitality, Virgin Galactic is going to require a host of still unknown services: “mystical, if that’s a good word,” Allen said. “Who is willing to tailor the spacesuits? Things that we probably don’t even realize are coming like that. Heck, it’s never been done before.”

Miyazaki describes a competitive bid process in which he was asked to prepare a tasting menu for Virgin executives at the spaceport earlier this year. He came up with a menu of more than 500 items, he said, to customize meals to the tastes of clients from around the world.

Virgin Galactic says its 700 customers already signed up hail from 58 countries.

“We don’t know who is coming for the first or second flight, and we need to work on their needs,” he said. “Each time is a challenge for us.”

All the uncertainties – the shifting start date for commercial operations and how quickly regular flights will ramp up – make it difficult for local businesses to make the investments needed to cater to Virgin Galactic’s customers, a wealthy bunch that includes Hollywood celebrities.

“I think the hard part is getting people to say, ‘I know this is going to be here in X months, so now here is what I need to do to be ready for it,’ ” Allen said.

The other challenge is getting people to believe Virgin Galactic will ever fly from southern New Mexico. New Mexico taxpayers in 2007 approved $225 million in funding for the spaceport, where Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant – and skepticism about the project’s viability has swirled ever since, fueled by the company’s repeated delays in launching spaceflight.

Phil San Filippo, executive director of the Las Cruces Convention and Visitors Bureau, counts himself among the believers.

“To me, this is the Kitty Hawk of the future,” he said. “There are some people who get it, but we are a minority. I think most people have been waiting for it to happen, and it’s taking so long they believe it won’t happen.”

Businesses like the Hotel Encanto are taking Virgin’s plans to heart.

The hotel, owned by Albuquerque-based Heritage Hotels & Resorts, is making a multimillion-dollar investment to renovate VIP executive suites, four of which will be ready by the end of the year, said Belia Alvarez, regional general manager. A parallel effort to kick up its customer service is underway.

Mark Butler, Virgin Galactic senior program manager in Las Cruces, said the state will soon start seeing more announcements like the hotel and catering contracts and positions shifting from Mojave to New Mexico.

“We’ll see a steady progression now of people heading this way,” he said.

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