Nearly a decade after the facility landed on the high desert plains of southern New Mexico, Spaceport America will soon welcome its anchor tenant. Virgin Galactic recently announced plans to relocate its headquarters and flight operations to the massive inland spaceport this summer in anticipation of hosting commercial spaceflights by the end of the year.
"Virgin Galactic is coming home to New Mexico, and it's coming home now," said Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, announcing the plans. "With today's announcement, New Mexico will become the first place on this beautiful planet of ours to regularly launch humans into space."
More than 100 Virgin Galactic flight personnel and support staff are expected to move from the company's current base of operations at California's Mojave Air and Space Port. Spaceport America will also host final validation flights of the SpaceShipTwo suborbital launch vehicle VSS Unity later this year, ahead of commencing full-scale commercial operations. Virgin Galactic affiliate The Spaceship Company, manufacturer of both that vehicle and the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft (VMS Eve), will remain at Mojave.
Virgin Galactic signed a 20-year lease at Spaceport America in 2009, two years after the site hosted its first commercial suborbital space launch. At the time, the company anticipated flights with paying tourists onboard as soon as 2012, but that timeframe was moved off by multiple design changes to the SpaceShipTwo vehicle and the October 2014 loss of Virgin Galactic's initial passenger-rated spacecraft, VSS Enterprise, during a launch test.
The ongoing delay in ramping up Virgin Galactic’s operations at the facility led New Mexico lawmakers and taxpayers alike to debate the state's level of investment in Spaceport America, but there was little trace of such past misgivings during the announcement. "With Virgin Galactic's investment and presence here, we are now first—not just in the country in this effort, but first in the world," said New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham.
Spaceport America has hosted close to 50 private suborbital launches since its official 2011 opening, including flights by UP Aerospace and three NASA Flight Opportunity payload launch providers. Google, Boeing, and other companies have also conducted tests at the facility. Spaceport America is located on the northwestern edge of the U.S. Army's White Sands Missile Range, about 55 miles northeast of Las Cruces, N.M.