Virgin Galactic to move into Spaceport America for spaceport operations

by Chris Bergin

In a major sign Virgin Galactic is close to flying paying customers on its SpaceShipTwo vehicle, the company has announced its development and testing program had advanced sufficiently to move the spaceline staff and space vehicles from Mojave, California to their commercial operations headquarters at Spaceport America, New Mexico.

It’s been a long time coming. Sir Richard Branson first announced the deal to set up a spaceport on land north of La Cruces city, New Mexico back in 2005.

With delays to the SS2 flight program, the facility has been mostly unused since construction was completed several years ago.

Some companies have leased the facilities over the years, notably SpaceX via evaluations into using the area for higher altitude flights for its Grasshopper program, before opting to remain in McGregor, Texas.

SpaceX forward base at Spaceport America in 2015 – via NSF/L2

Now, with VSS Unity enjoying numerous successes on its latest set of test flights, the spacecraft and its carrier plane, VMS Eve, are set to move to New Mexico in the summer.

Virgin Galactic’s sister manufacturing organization, The Spaceship Company (TSC), will complete its final test flights from New Mexico for commencing a full commercial service for passengers and research payload.

TSC will remain based in Mojave where it will continue building Virgin Galactic’s planned fleet of SpaceShipTwo and carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo vehicles.

Ahead of the vehicles taking up residency in their new home, more than 100 staff will move to the area.

“This announcement signals the final countdown to a regular commercial spaceflight service for paying passengers and science research from Spaceport America,” noted Virgin Galactic in a statement on Friday.

“It follows the great progress in operational readiness at Spaceport, including the completion of the hanger, offices, fuel farm, warehouse and antenna for telemetry and communications, as well as interior fit-out. It also positions New Mexico on the frontline of technological innovation and, as one of the very few places on Earth that plays host to regular human spaceflight launches, a magnet for inward investment.”

The announcement was made in front of local officials and lawmakers, with George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company adding: “The first photograph of Earth from space was taken over New Mexico in October of 1946. How inspiring and appropriate that the state will soon host the first regular commercial spaceflight service, which will enable thousands of people to see Earth from space with their own eyes.

Spaceport American – via Virgin Galactic

“We are deeply grateful to the citizens and leadership of New Mexico for having the vision to create a better future for their children and all of humanity.”

Sir Richard Branson, who is expected to fly on one of the opening commercial flights of SS2, cited the long history between his company and Spaceport America.

“Our Virgin Galactic adventure has been intertwined with New Mexico and Spaceport America right from the start and our stories have unfolded together. New Mexico delivered on its promise to build a world-first and world-class spaceport.

“Today, I could not be more excited to announce, that in return, we are now ready to bring New Mexico a world-first, world-class spaceline. Virgin Galactic is coming home to New Mexico where together we will open space to change the world for good.”

Interestingly, during the announcement, Sir Branson noted his long-term goal of setting up more spaceports around the world.

This is no secret, with the UK very much interested in its own spaceport to cater for spacecraft like SS2. However, Sir Branson noted he envisions “a global network of spaceports, trans-continental supersonic space flights, delivering passengers anywhere on the world within a couple of hours.”

Such a network plays into one of Elon Musk’s aspirations for SpaceX’s Starship and Super Heavy vehicles, as shown in his “Earth To Earth” concept.

With Sir Branson’s comment, the potential for a two-tier transportation system could become available, with SpaceX working on orbital velocity flights and Virgin Galactic’s supersonic suborbital transits.

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