Spaceport America is no longer just a shiny shell of hope that space tourism would one day launch from this remote spot in the New Mexico desert.
The once-empty hangar that anchors the taxpayer-financed launch and landing facility has been transformed into a custom-tailored headquarters where Virgin Galactic will run its commercial flight operations.
Two levels within the spaceport include mission control, a preparation area for pilots and a lounge for paying customers and their friends and families.
Company officials, offering the first glimpse of the facility yesterday, say the space is meant to create “an unparalleled experience” as customers prepare for what Virgin Galactic describes as the journey of a lifetime.
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Just how soon customers will file into Virgin Galactic’s newly outfitted digs for the first commercial flights has yet to be determined. A small number of test flights are still needed.
Billionaire Richard Branson, who is behind Virgin Galactic, first pitched the plan for the spaceport nearly 15 years ago, however, there were construction delays and cost overruns.
Virgin Galactic’s spaceship development took far longer than expected and had a major setback when its first experimental craft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot.
Critics suggested the project was an unnecessary and expensive but supporters argued that, just as with any venture that had never been tried before, there would be hard and sometimes costly lessons.
But Virgin Galactic posted on social media earlier this week that its carrier plane had landed in New Mexico and its main operating base was now at the spaceport. Branson added that the wing of Virgin’s next rocket ship has been completed.
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Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said once the test flights are complete, commercial operations can begin.
Chief Pilot Dave Mackay said the crew in the coming days will fly simulated launch missions to ensure in-flight communications and airspace coordination work as planned. The pilots also will be familiarising themselves with New Mexico’s airspace and landmarks.
“New Mexico is on track to become one of the very few places on this beautiful planet which regularly launches humans to space,” he said.
Branson will be among them. More than 600 people have already paid $80 million (£64.2m) to reserve a seat, according to the company.
That buys them a ride on the winged rocket ship, which is dropped in flight from the carrier airplane. Once free, it fires its rocket motor to hurtle toward the boundary of space before gliding back down.
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The latest test flight reached an altitude of 56 miles while travelling at three times the speed of sound.
Commenting on the unveiling of the new spaceport, the company said: “Virgin Galactic has striven to remain faithful to that tradition by choosing an elegant, experience-focused concept for the space launch system itself.
A statement added: “It was also specifically designed to enable Virgin Galactic to create an unparalleled experience as its customers prepare for journeys of a lifetime before graduating as astronauts.”