SANTA FE, N.M. — Billionaire Richard Branson is moving Virgin Galactic’s winged passenger rocket and more than 100 employees from California to a remote commercial launch and landing facility in southern New Mexico, bringing his space-tourism dream a step closer to reality.
Branson said Friday at a news conference that Virgin Galactic’s development and testing program has advanced enough to make the move to the custom-tailored hangar and runway at the taxpayer-financed Spaceport America facility near the town of Truth or Consequences.
Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said a small number of flight tests are pending. He declined to set a specific deadline for the first commercial flight.
An interior cabin for the company’s space rocket is being tested, and pilots and engineers are among the employees relocating from California to New Mexico. The move to New Mexico puts the company in the “home stretch,” Whitesides said.
The manufacturing of the space vehicles by a sister enterprise, The Spaceship Company, will remain based in the community of Mojave, California.
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.
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.
Branson thanked New Mexico politicians and residents for their patience over the past decade. He said he believes space tourism — once aloft — is likely to bring about profound change.
“Our future success as a species rests on the planetary perspective,” Branson said. “The perspective that we know comes sharply into focus when that planet is viewed from the black sky of space.”