The Las Cruces Sun News reports that, after years of planning, Richard Branson has finally announced that his space-tourism company is moving all operations from California to southern New Mexico:
Virgin Galactic will be shifting operations to Spaceport America near the southern New Mexico town of Truth or Consequences as it prepares to begin for commercial service later this year. The manufacturing of the space vehicles by the company’s sister enterprise, The Spaceship Company, will remain based in Mojave, California.
“We are now ready to bring New Mexico a world-first, world-class spaceline,” Branson said. “Virgin Galactic is coming home to New Mexico where together we will open space to change the world for good.”
New Mexico officials have eagerly anticipated the arrival of space tourism by Virgin Galactic for more than a decade. Taxpayers invested over $200 million in Spaceport America after Branson and then-Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, pitched the plan for the facility, with Virgin Galactic as the anchor tenant.
While the announcement signals the final countdown to regular commercial service for paying customers, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides has declined to say how many more test flights must be conducted. Branson has said he would like to make his first sub-orbital flight this year as the venture’s first passenger on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20.
Space tourism has not been a complete novelty since millionaire U.S. engineer Dennis Tito in 2001 paid $20 million to join a Russian space mission to the International Space Station. Branson’s goal has been to open up space travel to more and more people.
Hundreds of potential customers have committed as much as $250,000 up front for rides in Virgin’s six-passenger rocket, which is about the size of an executive jet.
But Virgin Galactic’s spaceship development has taken far longer than expected and had a major setback when the company’s first experimental craft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot.
Space sector analyst Adam Jonas, a managing director of equity research at Morgan Stanley, said Branson’s venture could have an outsized 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.”