‘We know you’ve waited a long time,’ Virgin Galactic says

Officials from the company at the center of Spaceport America’s hopes for success say they are getting ready for a ‘big move,’ with plans to base an additional 85 employees in the Las Cruces area over the next year. Courtesy photo

Virgin Galactic says to be patient, New Mexico. It is coming.

Officials from the company at the center of Spaceport America’s hopes for success say they are getting ready for a “big move,” with plans to base an additional 85 employees in the Las Cruces area over the next year.

With Virgin Galactic’s leaders talking of starting full passenger spaceflight operations by the end of 2018, boosters of the publicly financed $220 million facility and even skeptical policymakers are hoping that New Mexico’s bet on the commercial space industry will soon begin to pay off.

Spaceport America opened in late 2011, sold as a destination for wealthy adventurers willing to pay $250,000 for a ride into the heavens on Virgin Galactic’s private spacecraft.

While the facility has been host to several dozen rocket launches since it opened, tourists are not taking flight from the facility yet, six years later. Much of Virgin Galactic’s work remains concentrated at another spaceport in California’s Mojave Desert. And while the spaceflight industry is growing, the focus has shifted from sending tourists into space toward research and other commercial missions, particularly now that NASA has ended its shuttle program.

Critics argue Spaceport America is a boondoggle. Shoppers in Doña Ana and Sierra counties still pay a special gross receipts tax on their purchases to help cover the cost of building the futuristic facility.

Meanwhile, plans to launch spacecraft from the site continue to move along.

Virgin Galactic’s plans have suffered setbacks, particularly with the crash of a test flight over California in 2014 that killed a co-pilot.

And as recently as last month, Virgin Galactic’s president said the company’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, won’t be headed to space in the next six months despite his proclamation that he would be “very disappointed” otherwise.

Earlier this year, Branson told a conference in Hong Kong that Virgin Galactic was resuming test flights and aimed to launch full commercial passenger operations by the end of 2018.

“We think we’re at the beginning of a very exciting period,” Richard Dalbello, vice president of business development and government affairs at Virgin Galactic, told a legislative committee in Santa Fe on Wednesday. “We know you’ve waited a long time and we are coming.”

Dalbello said the company’s next steps are to continue testing of its SpaceShip Two vehicles in California, move staff to New Mexico and complete testing of the crafts here.

The SpaceShip Two is designed to carry people and cargo into suborbital space and back, with a crew of two pilots and up to six fare-paying astronauts or payloads for research. Another craft, the WhiteKnight Two, would carry the vehicle part of the way. The company has been testing the two together. The company also has tested SpaceShip Two gliding without an engine.

Space.com reported in October that Mike Moses, president of Virgin Galactic, said the company aims to get SpaceShip Two vehicles up to 50 miles above Earth’s surface in the coming months.

Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic says it has added 10 full-time employees in New Mexico since this time last year and will have 30 full-time staff in the state by the end of 2017. If tests go according to plan, Dalbello said, another 85 employees will move to the Las Cruces area over the next year.

Local authorities are moving ahead with long-stalled plans to improve a road running south from Spaceport America through the desert toward Las Cruces. The road would make it easier to reach the facility from the south, without the need to drive over from Truth or Consequences. But that has worried some in Sierra County, who have been concerned they might be cut out of business drawn by the Spaceport.

The Spaceport Authority, the state agency that operates the facility, approved a budget request for the next year of about $1 million from the general fund, up $375,000 from this year with an eye toward more aggressively recruiting business to the site.

That might seem like a tough sell when the state’s budget is still tight and lawmakers face pressure from constituents who view the project as a waste of money. Legislators on both sides of the aisle seem eager to see it take off.

“I think everyone here wants it up and running,” Sen. Mark Moores, a Republican from Albuquerque, told Dalbello.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.

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