Almost 15 years ago, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson made a bet on launching tourists into space from the scrublands of southern New Mexico. Now, he’s about to move the headquarters of his space venture to the so-called “Land of Enchantment.”
Virgin Galactic’s move into its permanent headquarters at Spaceport America, north of Las Cruces, signifies the acceleration of his effort to build a viable space tourism business. It also marks a recovery from the 2014 mishap that claimed the life of a test pilot. This summer, the company will relocate about 100 employees from California as it prepares to wind down its test flight program, Virgin Galactic announced Friday during a ceremony with Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham in Santa Fe.
The next step—actually flying customers—could begin later this year.
“The long-held promise of uniting our spaceship with a dedicated Spaceport America is finally happening,” Virgin Galactic Chief Executive Officer George Whitesides said in a telephone interview. Branson has said he will be among the first passengers; Whitesides said he and his wife, Loretta, will probably fly in 2020. Blue Origin, the space effort by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, also plans its first commercial flights for this year.
Virgin Galactic’s flights from Spaceport America involve a carrier aircraft that takes the spacecraft to an altitude of about 45,000 feet, where it drops and then fires its rocket to climb into suborbital space. Passengers, who first spend about two days at Virgin Galactic’s campus preparing for the trip, will experience about 10 minutes of weightlessness before descending for a landing at the spaceport.