Virgin Galactic will conduct the remaining test flights for the company’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital rocket plane from southern New Mexico after moving staff and equipment from California over the next few months, officials announced Friday.
Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, announced the move Friday in an event with New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in Santa Fe.
After completing two test flights to an altitude more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) in December and in February, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle, its carrier aircraft, pilots and support staff will relocate to Spaceport America in southern New Mexico this summer, officials said.
“Our Virgin Galactic adventure has been intertwined with New Mexico and Spaceport America right from the start, and our stories have unfolded together,” Branson said.
Spaceport America was built with more than $200 million in taxpayer funding, and the facility opened in 2011. But the spaceport sat mostly vacant due to delays in the development of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, including a fatal crash in 2014 that set the program back more than three years.
But Virgin Galactic officials said Friday that now is the right time to move the company’s flight program from Mojave Air and Space Port in California, the staging base for all of the SpaceShipTwo flights to date, to Spaceport America, located about 45 miles (70 kilometers) north of Las Cruces.
“Virgin Galactic is coming home to New Mexico, and it’s coming home now,” Branson said.
“With today’s announcement, New Mexico will become the first place on this beautiful planet of our’s to regularly launch humans into space,” Branson said. “Rarer still, is that those launches will be conducted by a private company.”
George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s CEO, said the company will add about 100 jobs in New Mexico, including pilots, mechanics, engineers and hospitality hosts. The company currently has around 45 employees in New Mexico.
“With Virgin Galactic’s investment and presence here, we are now first not just in the country for this effort, but we are first in the world,” Gov. Lujan Grisham said.
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle is designed to drop from the belly of a purpose-built carrier jet, called WhiteKnightTwo, and fire a hybrid rocket motor to reach an altitude of more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) into the airless environment at the edge of space, giving passengers a few minutes of weightlessness before descending back to Earth.
With room for two pilots and up to six passengers, the reusable SpaceShipTwo rocket plane returns to a landing on the same runway from which it departed.
The VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic’s only space vehicle currently flying, completed two test flights above 50 miles Dec. 13 and Feb. 22. Two test pilots helmed the rocket plane on the December test flight, and another Virgin Galactic employee, astronaut trainer Beth Moses, rode in the passenger cabin in February to evaluate the experience for future commercial space tourists.
Whitesides said the Feb. 22 flight was a “huge step forward for the company.”
“This step has given us the confidence that it’s the right time to move the spaceship,” Whitesides said in remarks Friday in Santa Fe.
“We have a bit more of our flight test program to do, which will complete in New Mexico,” he said. “At that point, we will be in a place where we’ll be able to start commercial operations.”
While Spaceport America officially opened in 2011, workers continue with final outfitting of Virgin Galactic’s training facilities, where space tourists will prepare for their flights at Spaceport America, Whitesides said.
“After many years of work, the other side of the foundation, our ground operations, are at the point that we feel confident in moving the vehicles,” Whitesides said. “So this summer, we will reposition our space system, consisting of a carrier aircraft, VMS Eve … and spaceship, VSS Unity, from Mojave, California, to Spaceport America.”
Moving employees to New Mexico over the summer will minimize family disruptions, especially for children in school, Whitesides said.
The carrier aircraft and spaceship will fly to New Mexico once ground teams at The Spaceship Company, Virgin Galactic’s sister company, complete work on VSS Unity’s cabin interior, according to Whitesides.
The Spaceship Company will remain based at Mojave to build a fleet of carrier jets and SpaceShipTwo vehicles for Virgin Galactic’s fleet.
Whitesides said Virgin Galactic is in the “final stretch” of the flight test program for SpaceShipTwo.
“Before commercial operations begin, we will need to finish evaluation of the new outfitted cabin, the experience and the training program for our future astronaut customers,” Whitesides said. “That’s work we still have to go.”
More than 600 people from more than 50 countries have paid deposits to fly on SpaceShipTwo, a trip that Virgin Galactic sells for $250,000.
Branson himself plans to ride on a SpaceShipTwo flight. In February, he said he hoped to be able to fly by July 20, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
“My own very first flight will not take place until we’ve settled in New Mexico,” Branson said. “But for once, I’m happy to wait because flying from Spaceport America is important to me, as it is, I think, to the people of New Mexico, who made all of this possible.”
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