Virgin Galactic moving space tourism operations to Spaceport America

May 12, 2019

British billionaire Richard Branson said Friday his Virgin Galactic space tourism venture has finally progressed enough to move flight operations from California to a taxpayer-financed facility in the Southern New Mexico desert.

More than 13 years ago, the colorful founder of the Virgin Group stood on a stage at Santa Fe’s Eldorado Hotel with then-Gov. Bill Richardson to announce plans for the first purpose-built commercial spacecraft launch and landing facility, where Virgin Galactic would base a bold new addition to the adventure travel industry.

Though Virgin Galactic at that point already had begun selling tickets for the planned 2½-hour flights, it still hasn’t sent any paying customers aloft from Spaceport America, which the state built on 18,000 acres south of Truth or Consequences at a cost of $218.5 million.

But on Friday, Branson was back in Santa Fe at a state Capitol news conference with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and U.S. Sen. Tom Udall to announce his company’s development and testing program has reached a point where Virgin Galactic is moving more than 100 workers and its sleek passenger rocket from California to New Mexico.

“New Mexico built a world-first, world-class spaceport,” Branson told the gathering in the Capitol Rotunda. “That is why I could not be more excited to announce that we’re now finally ready to bring you a world-class space line. Virgin Galactic is coming to New Mexico, and it’s coming home now.”

Branson said the move will begin immediately and continue through the summer.

Virgin Galactic already has about 50 employees at its Spaceport America headquarters. While Branson’s company is the anchor tenant at the spaceport, other aviation companies including UP Aerospace Inc. have conducted launches there.

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said at Friday’s event the company has not yet completed all of its necessary test flights, but commercial flights should begin in less than two years, possibly within a year.

“This is the final stretch of our test flight program,” Whitesides said of plans to begin flights in New Mexico.

Virgin Galactic’s development of space vehicles, which it will continue to manufacture in Mojave, Calif., suffered a major setback when its first experimental craft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot.

Hundreds of potential customers have committed as much as $250,000 upfront for rides in Virgin’s winged, six-passenger rocket, which does not launch from the ground. A Virgin Galactic news release said the spaceship VSS Unity is carried under a special plane to an altitude of about 50,000 feet before detaching and igniting its rocket engine.

“How cool is this?” an enthusiastic Lujan Grisham said. “Virgin Galactic’s announcement today is an incredibly exciting development for both our state’s economic future and the future of aerospace in general.”

Udall hailed Branson as a “risk-taker.” The New Mexico senator surprised many when he praised the entrepreneur who started Virgin as a music store chain and record label for “the risk you took on The Sex Pistols,” a pioneering punk-rock band.

The mood at Friday’s event was about as giddy as that December 2005 spaceport announcement at the Eldorado, in which Branson said Virgin Galactic would send 50,000 customers into space in the first 10 years of operation, and where actress Victoria Principal, a star of the 1980s TV drama Dallas, said she’d be on the first civilian flight of Virgin Galactic.

A Friday news release said 600 people from more than 50 countries have reserved seats once space tourism becomes a reality. While the price for a flight was $200,000 in 2005, a February article in National Geographic reported the current fare is $250,000.

Branson on Friday thanked New Mexico for its patience.

Since the October 2014 test flight that ended in disaster, the company has conducted successful test flights.

One of the speakers at the Capitol on Friday was Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut trainer. In February she was one of three people aboard a launch to the edge of space.

Rocketing into suborbital flight before gradually descending back to Earth, she said, is an experience that “just takes your breath away.”

“Everything is silent and still, and you can unstrap and float about the cabin,” Moses said. “Pictures do not do the view from space justice.”

Space sector analyst Adam Jonas, a managing director of equity research at Morgan Stanley, told the Associated Press that Branson’s venture could have an outsize impact in the age of social media on how the public visualizes space as a domain for scientific and commercial exploration.

“You bring them back to Earth and they explain what they saw — that’s a story, put through the velocity of social media, people want to hear,” he said. “Sometimes you need some distance to gain a perspective, seeing the Earth from space, seeing how thin that layer of atmosphere is that protects us.”

Amazon tycoon Jeff Bezos announced Thursday that his space company, Blue Origin, will send a robotic spaceship to the moon with aspirations for another ship that could bring people there along the same time frame as NASA’s proposed 2024 return. Bezos has provided no details about launch dates.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.