Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic announced Friday that after years of waiting and delays, it will finally move its operations to Spaceport America, the launch site in rural New Mexico that bills itself as "the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport".
New Mexico has been anticipating the arrival of space tourism for more than a decade.
"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".
Spaceport America, a 70,000-square-kilometer launch complex, lies approximately 72 kilometers from the town of Las Cruces, New Mexico.
But 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.
"New Mexico delivered on its promise to build a world-first and world-class spaceport", Branson said.
"Virgin Galactic is coming home to New Mexico where together we will open space to change the world for good", Branson said.
"We still need to finish out our flight test program, though we do feel we are in our final stretch", Whitesides said. In December, Virgin's ship - the VSS Unity - made it to space, which is defined as 100 kilometres above earth.
The company will charge $250,000 per passenger, providing space tourists with a few minutes of gravity-free floating time in space and spectacular views of the Earth's curvature. The Unity then separates from the VMS Eve and fires up its rockets to shoot into suborbit at 50 miles up. About 600 people have already prepaid to reserve seats on future flights. Micro-satellites can also be strapped to the top of the rover and deployed in lunar orbit.
It was in September 2000, when Amazon Inc founder Jeff Bezos founded aerospace manufacturing and sub-orbital spaceflight services company Blue Origin LLC, with aims to develop a variety of technologies, with a focus on rocket-powered vertical takeoff and vertical landing (VTVL) vehicles for access to suborbital and orbital space.
The company aims to "open and democratize" space for commercial operations everywhere, Branson said. Blue Origin Vice President Clay Mowry said 2024 was not a concrete goal for a mission with people and said it was more up to NASA as a potential customer.
"We've moved from the realm of space-age physics to logistics", he said.The company is also exploring small aircraft to begin frequent employee shuttle flights between Mojave-where Virgin subsidiary The Spaceship Co. employs several hundred people-and Spaceport America as a way to avoid the time-inefficiencies of flying commercial.
"The staff will be moving over the summer to support the team here and integrate into New Mexico", Whitesides said.
"The next leap in space will be fueled by commercial companies like Blue Origin and commercial innovation", said former Obama White House space adviser Phil Larson, now an assistant dean of engineering at the University of Colorado. The aircraft called VSS Unity reached an altitude of 271,268 feet, reaching the lower altitudes of space.
Branson announced Friday that Virgin Galactic will immediately begin shifting operations from California to a spaceport and specialized runway in the New Mexico desert in final preparations for commercial flights. "With these workers here and with these plans firmly in place, I'm certain New Mexico will serve as the launchpad for the rapid industry growth we've been expecting for so many years".
"Virgin Galactic's announcement today is an incredibly exciting development for both our state's economic future and the future of aerospace in general", Gov. Lujan Grisham said.