After successfully demonstrating a full duration spaceflight mission in a February test flight, Virgin Galactic announced Friday it is ready to begin the long-planned transition of its flight operations from Mojave to New Mexico.
The move means the SpaceShipTwo flight test program will conclude from Spaceport America, near Las Cruces, before commercial passenger and science spaceflights begin there.
“Virgin Galactic is coming home to New Mexico, where together we will open space to change the world for good,” Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson said during the announcement made Friday in Santa Fe, inside the state capital.
“New Mexico delivered on its promise. You built us a world-first, world-class spaceport,” he said. “We’re now finally ready to bring you a world-first, world-class spaceline.”
Virgin Galactic officials said they plan to move the SpaceShipTwo vehicle dubbed “Unity” and the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft to their new home this summer, after completing installation of the interior cabin in Mojave and to allow employees with families to complete the school year.
About 100 employees will be moving to New Mexico with the endeavor, officials said.
Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing arm, The Spaceship Company, will remain at the Mojave Air and Space Port, building the fleet of SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft and future vehicles.
“We’re sort of creative engine of the company,” TSC President Enrico Palermo said Friday from Mojave. “Our job here in Mojave is to build spaceships and ship them off.”
As these vehicles are built, they will undergo initial flight testing at Mojave before being shipped to New Mexico or other spaceports for commercial operations.
The next two SpaceShipTwo vehicles are under assembly now, with more expected to follow.
“We’re committed to Mojave,” Palermo said. “Our job is to build the fleet. There’s still a lot to do in Mojave.”
The Spaceship Company employs about 500 people at the Mojave site, with an additional 100 contractors, he said. That number is expected to remain stable.
Final flight testing will resume once the spacecraft and carrier are settled into New Mexico.
“We do feel like we’re on our final stretch” of flight testing, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said Friday. He did not specify a number of remaining test flights or a timeline.
February’s successful test flight, the craft’s second to space, reached 295,007 feet altitude (55.87 miles or 89.9 kilometers) and Mach 3.04 during the rocket boost phase and demonstrated a full mission profile, complete with a passenger in addition to the two pilots.
“This step has given us the confidence that it is the right time to move the spaceship,” Whitesides said.
As flight testing has gone on in Mojave, the final ground preparations have been made in New Mexico.
Virgin Galactic officials stressed that the New Mexico site will be the first to regularly send people into space.
Noting the first photo of Earth from space was taken from above New Mexico in 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,” Whitesides said.
Branson said his own spaceflight aboard SpaceShipTwo, long promised to be the first commercial flight, will take place from Spaceport America.
“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,” he said.
In addition to housing the commercial spaceflight operations, the facility the company calls the Gateway to Space will also be used for Virgin Galactic’s astronaut training. More than 600 customers have paid as much as $250,000 for flights aboard SpaceShipTwo, according to company officials.
The relocation to Spaceport America has been a long time plan. Virgin Galactic and the New Mexico state government announced an agreement for the spaceline to operate from the then-proposed spaceport in 2005. What became Spaceport America is the first purpose-built spaceport in the nation, as opposed to others that have or still serve aviation operations, as well.
The final cost to construct the spaceport was $218.5 million, of which $142.1 million was allocated by the state of New Mexico and $76.4 million was generated by a .25% local spaceport gross receipt tax in Doña Ana and Sierra counties, according to figures provided by Spaceport America.
While awaiting its anchor tenant in Virgin Galactic, the spaceport has played host to more than 200 vertical launch missions.