Spaceport America is becoming the true base of operations for Virgin Galactic. (Virgin Galactic Photo)
After two successful crewed test flights to a 50-mile-high space milestone, Virgin Galactic says it’s shifting its operations from California to New Mexico’s Spaceport America — lock, stock and spaceship.
Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, made the announcement in Santa Fe today, in the company of New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other state dignitaries. The company said the transfer is beginning immediately and will continue over the summer, to minimize the disruption for the school-age children of employees.
More than 100 staff members are affected by the move, Virgin Galactic said in a news release.
The shift follows through on a promise that Virgin Galactic made more than a decade ago, in exchange for New Mexico’s pledge to put state funds toward a project that ended up costing more than $200 million.
“New Mexico delivered on its promise to build a world-first and world-class spaceport,” Branson said. “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.”
Grisham called today’s announcement of the move “an incredibly exciting development for both our state’s economic future and the future of aerospace in general.”
“With these workers here and with these plans firmly in place, I’m certain New Mexico will serve as the launchpad for the rapid industry growth we’ve been expecting for so many years,” she said. “Today marks the beginning of the next chapter of aerospace in New Mexico.”
Virgin Galactic has been conducting flight tests of its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane and SpaceShipTwo rocket plane at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port since 2008. The program went through a tragic setback in 2014 when the first SpaceShipTwo broke up during a test flight, killing one of the pilots and seriously injuring the other. But it hit its goal last December when test pilots rocketed beyond the 50-mile altitude mark and earned their astronaut wings.
A follow-up flight sent two other pilots and Virgin crew member Beth Moses to astronaut-worthy altitudes in February.
Now SpaceShipTwo crew members will start calling New Mexico their home. But Virgin Galactic’s sister manufacturing venture, The Spaceship Company, will remain in Mojave to manufacture more WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo planes. As a parting gift, TSC will finish out the cabin interior of VSS Unity, the SpaceShipTwo plane that’s been used for testing.
About 700 would-be fliers have paid as much as $250,000 to reserve a ride on SpaceShipTwo. The shift to New Mexico serves as a signal that passenger flights are on track to begin later this year..For what it’s worth, Branson has said he wants to fly on July 16, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon mission’s liftoff.