After years and years of waiting, space is getting a lot closer for New Mexico.
In fact, Virgin Galactic says it’s almost here.
The company plans to launch a rocket-powered ship to the upper atmosphere from Spaceport America later this month, the first human spaceflight to depart from New Mexico.
And officials say it will be a significant step toward offering commercial rides high above the Earth.
The flight is expected to take place between Nov. 19 and 23, when a mother ship will haul an aircraft from the spaceport to about 50,000 feet and release it — at which point a hybrid rocket engine will propel it to the edge of space before it glides back down to the launch area.
Two pilots will operate the otherwise empty craft for the initial flight. A second rocket-boosted flight, slated for early next year, will have four mission specialists in the cabin.
After that, a third test flight will carry Virgin Group founder Richard Branson.
Company executives and state leaders welcome the breakthrough after years of delays in making commercial flights materialize. Spaceport America also experienced controversy earlier this year with the ouster of former CEO Dan Hicks, under investigation for alleged financial mismanagement and conflict of interest.
“This is a huge milestone for the people of the state, which built the world’s first commercial spaceport,” Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said during a web conference last week.
New Mexico’s trip to space has been a long time coming: Branson and former Gov. Bill Richardson announced plans back in 2006 to build the for-profit spaceport. Since then, the state has spent about $220 million building the facility with the hope that it would return about $75 million to the state’s coffers. The hefty investment has prompted some state leaders to question when it finally will deliver commercial flights.
“I’m thrilled to death that they’re going to be doing a flight,” said state Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces. “I’ve carried a lot of legislation for the spaceport.”
Virgin Galactic moved its operations to the spaceport near Upham in February, with the aim of eventually launching 400 flights a year from the site for an estimated $1 billion in revenue.
If Branson’s flight goes as planned, the company will reopen ticket sales.
Tickets have sold for about $250,000 each. So far, 600 people have bought tickets, and another 900 have paid $1,000 to reserve seats through the “one small step” program, which will be discontinued in 2021.
Still, no timeline has been set for making the first commercial flights. For safety reasons, Virgin wants to thoroughly assess the test data and make any needed adjustments before offering flights to the public, Colglazier said.
This reluctance to commit to a timeline for launching tourist flights comes after years of rescheduling the debut, including one that was set for last summer.
Aside from delays, the company suffered a fatal accident in 2014 when a pilot died.
The three rocket-powered test flights are required for the Federal Aviation Administration to issue the necessary license for such commercial space flights, Colglazier said.
Company officials have told industry publications such as SpaceNews the rocket engine propels the spacecraft to an altitude of about 50 miles. That’s 12 miles below a loosely set boundary of space known as the Karman line.
Viewing the world from such a lofty height is something few have experienced, Colglazier said.
“The first chapter of Virgin Galactic has been to accomplish an incredibly difficult task — creating a spaceflight system that can fly humans to space, give them a gift of a changed perspective and then bring them safely home,” Colglazier said. “We are close to completing this task.”
Branson’s expected ride will be a milestone because he’s not a pilot or a technician.
Papen said she’s glad to hear that Branson is taking part in a spaceport launch.
“We’ve been anxiously awaiting for him to show up,” Papen said.
State Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said he’s pleased Virgin Galactic is making progress with its launches but added he believes the state must recruit more tenants and users to Spaceport America.
Boeing and EXOS Aerospace recently became tenants, but Smith said more are needed to make the facility financially viable.
“We wish Virgin Galactic well, but we can’t basically say ‘This is strictly under your jurisdiction,’ ” Smith said.
Papen said when Virgin gets its commercial service going, it should sell others on both the spaceport and New Mexico as an aerospace hub.
“We have the airspace, we have the altitude, we’ve got the weather — everything that makes us the ideal location for a spaceport,” Papen said.