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Virgin Galactic unveils its new space base, but no flights yet

Virgin Galactic at Spaceport America
Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport America in the New Mexico desert.
(Virgin Galactic )

Champagne, caviar and seared tuna will be on the menu for Virgin Galactic astronauts in training when they arrive at the company’s new home in the desert scrublands of southern New Mexico. As they gaze out at the mountains east of the otherworldly structure, a master of espresso arts will dose out shots from a barista island, accompanied by multiple forms of dairy and dairy alternatives.

As for when the actual flights will begin, no one’s saying yet.

Virgin Galactic at Spaceport America
Virgin Galactic employees at Spaceport America gather at the coffee bar, where they plan to meet with customers and their families once commercial operations begin.
(Susan Montoya Bryan / Associated Press)

Virgin Galactic executives offered journalists a tour of their new headquarters and customer center this week at Spaceport America, declaring the facility “operationally ready” for space tourism. After 15 years of struggle, including the fallout from a fatal accident and a subsequent spacecraft redesign, company officials were exuberant.

“The problem with history is that you don’t really [comprehend] it while it’s happening, but here we are and it’s happening: the launch of commercial spaceflights,” George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s chief executive, said Thursday at the spaceport.

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The company declined to say when customer flights would begin, following years of faulty prognostication from Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, who has said he will be among the first to fly. Virgin has completed two test flights into space since December, with additional glide and powered flights planned from the new operating base.

Virgin Galactic at Spaceport America
The entrance to the social hub of Virgin Galactic's Spaceport America.
(Susan Montoya Bryan / Associated Press)

The $200-million spaceport complex was designed by British architects Foster + Partners; the exterior was completed several years ago, and the interior remained unfinished until recently.

The interior design reflects the Virgin brand and Branson’s personal approach to hospitality, executives said. Earth tones and warm fabrics on the ground floor (dubbed Gaia) give way to a “clinical, lighter feel” on the second (called Cirrus), said Jeremy Brown, the company’s lead architectural designer.

The second story has employee work spaces, largely for meals and socializing, as well as mission control. A third-floor “astronaut lounge” will be completed next year. Part of mission control’s flight-day duties, President Michael Moses said, will be “notifying someone about when to chill the Champagne for the party after the flight.”

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Before the bubbly flows, customers will have three days of training to prepare for the G-forces and learn how to move in microgravity. Launches are to happen the morning of their fourth day.

Virgin Galactic at Spaceport America
A Virgin Galactic ground crew guides a carrier aircraft into the hangar at Spaceport America after a test flight over the desert near Upham, N.M., on Thursday.
(Susan Montoya Bryan / Associated Press)

But even astronauts can’t escape the rigors of a daily, ground-based commute. The spaceport is about 55 miles north of Las Cruces, N.M., where customers will stay at the posh Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces. Virgin is exploring ways to attract a new upscale resort closer to the spaceport, said Stephen Attenborough, Virgin Galactic’s commercial director. It’s possible that any new resort for the spaceport might be branded as a Virgin Limited Edition property; the Virgin unit operates seven upscale resorts, including 74-acre Necker Island in the Caribbean, where Branson spends much of his time.

Slightly more than 600 people from 60 countries have paid $250,000 each for 90-minute rides into space. Virgin Galactic has stopped taking reservations until commercial flights begin.

Seven months after a Virgin Galactic craft achieved its maiden voyage to suborbital space, the company is setting its sights on another breakthrough: becoming the world’s first publicly traded commercial space travel company.

As the company’s fleet grows, so will its cadre of pilots and flight schedule. Spacecraft will depart not quite daily but “certainly very frequently,” Attenborough said.

Virgin Galactic at Spaceport America
This undated photo shows Virgin Galactic's spaceflight system as it prepares for flight at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
(Virgin Galactic )

For now, Virgin remains focused on finishing flight preparations. The carrier aircraft VMS Eve relocated to New Mexico from California on Monday and has begun readiness flights. Testing includes air traffic control communications and maneuvers that simulate how the aircraft will drop the attached VSS Unity spaceship at almost 50,000 feet. Unlike Virgin’s previous flights in the military airspace above the Mojave Desert, the New Mexico flights will operate in part above commercial air traffic, requiring more airspace coordination with Federal Aviation Administration controllers.

Two additional spaceships are in production at Virgin’s Mojave, Calif., facility, with plans for a fleet of five aircraft and two carriers.

Virgin Galactic at Spaceport America
Virgin Galactic pilots Mark "Forger" Stucky and Kelly Latimer discuss their morning test flight at Spaceport America on Thursday.
(Susan Montoya Bryan / Associated Press)

Human workers are also on the move. Virgin Galactic’s transplanted workforce, mostly from California, is about 90 strong now with an additional 50 to 60 still to come. Their arrival represents a resurrection of New Mexico’s $200-million investment in the endeavor, one that has garnered no shortage of derisive assessments. Each setback — such as the fatal 2014 crash of a Virgin Galactic spaceship or SpaceX’s decision not to use the site — had signaled the possible failure of the state’s desert adventure. This week local politicians were quick to express their relief.

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Virgin Galactic’s progress has become integral to economic development for the state, said New Mexico Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, who participated in Thursday’s event. “New Mexico,” he said on Twitter, “is aiming for the stars.”


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