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Sci-Tech

For Virgin Galactic, space tourism now starts in New Mexico

Richard Branson says his spaceflight company is coming home to the high desert. Commercial flights could start within 12 months.

WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, VMS Eve on tarmac at Spaceport America, Virgin Galactic's Gateway to Space

Virgin's WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft on the tarmac at Spaceport America.

Virgin Galactic

Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is finally moving into its permanent home at New Mexico's Spaceport America as it prepares for regular flights to space for adventurous (and well-heeled) tourists.

The shiny spaceport has been a relatively quiet and empty place since it was declared open for business all the way back in 2011.

The state of New Mexico had taken a big gamble, building the full-service facility in the middle of the desert on a promise from Branson's space tourism company that it would be an anchor tenant. Virgin's plans have been slow to unfold, beset by setbacks including a fatal crash during a test in 2014

But at a press conference at the New Mexico state capitol in Santa Fe on Friday, Branson, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared the long wait over.

From left to right: Virgin Galactic's first passenger and chief astronaut instructor, Beth Moses, employee Kevin Prieto, Sen. Tom Udall, Richard Branson and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

From left to right: Virgin Galactic's first passenger and chief astronaut instructor, Beth Moses, employee Kevin Prieto, Sen. Tom Udall, Richard Branson and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Eric Mack

"We're now finally ready to bring you a world-class spaceline," Branson told the small crowd, wearing his trademark bomber jacket and blue jeans. "Virgin Galactic is coming home to New Mexico, and it's coming home now."

Virgin's announcement came less than 24 hours after rival Blue Origin reiterated its hopes of taking tourists to space aboard its New Shepard rocket by the end of the year. The space startup, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, also unveiled a lunar lander design and its ambitions to help millions of people eventually live in orbit and beyond.

When pressed on Friday, Whitesides said Virgin hopes to begin flying commercial passengers to space within the next 12 months. Two passengers who had already booked their reservations with Virgin years ago were on hand for the event in Santa Fe. 

Branson said he hopes to take his first flight to space aboard one of Virgin's vehicles by the end of 2019. And he allowed that Virgin might also send people to the moon one day.

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"We're starting by putting people into space," he said. "If we're right in thinking that there are thousands of people who'd like to be able to go to space, we can generate enough income then to move on to next-stage things like maybe having a Virgin hotel floating off the moon." 

Until now, much of Virgin Galactic's operations, including its test flights, have been operating out of a facility in the Mojave desert in southern California. 

Whitesides said the company is in the process of moving its staff and its aircraft to the Land of Enchantment, including the VSS Unity, which last year became the first commercial spacecraft to carry a human passenger to the edge of space.