Virgin Galactic Moving Test Flights to New Mexico to Prep for Commercial Operations

Virgin Galactic is really gearing up to launch paying customers to space.

The spaceflight company is moving its development and testing activities from Mojave, California, to its commercial-operations headquarters, Spaceport America, in New Mexico.

"This announcement signals the final countdown to a regular commercial spaceflight service for paying passengers and science research from Spaceport America," Virgin Galactic representatives said in a statement today (May 10).

Related: How Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Passenger Space Plane Works (Infographic)

More than 100 employees will relocate, starting immediately. Virgin's suborbital spaceflight system — the space plane VSS Unity and VMS Eve, the airplane that carries it aloft — will make the move this summer, after technicians complete Unity's cabin interior and some other finishing touches, company representatives said.

That work is being done by The Spaceship Company (TSC), Virgin's sister manufacturing entity. Mojave will remain the home base of TSC, which is building a fleet of spaceliners and carrier planes (which are known as SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo, respectively.)

VSS Unity, the newest SpaceShipTwo vehicle, has already completed a number of test flights out of Mojave. On the two most recent tests, in December of 2018 and February 2019, the craft reached suborbital space (by one definition, anyway).

The participants in those two flights — test pilots Mark "Forger" Stucky, Frederick "CJ" Sturckow, Dave Mackay and Mike "Sooch" Masucci, and chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses — have all received commercial astronaut wings from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The final phases of Unity's test campaign will take place at Spaceport America, Virgin Galactic representatives said. The New Mexico facility is the first spaceport ever built specifically for commercial flight, and Virgin Galactic is its anchor tenant.

Commercial flights could begin as soon as this year. Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson has said he plans to be on the first one, which he would like to take place on July 16, the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Apollo 11 moon mission.

It currently costs $250,000 to reserve a seat aboard the six-passenger, two-pilot SpaceShipTwo, which rockets itself into suborbital space after being dropped by WhiteKnightTwo at an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters). Passengers will experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of Earth against the blackness of space before returning to Earth for a runway landing. 

VSS Unity is the second SpaceShipTwo vehicle to make it to the flight-test phase. The first, VSS Enterprise, broke apart in October 2014, killing copilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injuring pilot Peter Siebold. 

Investigators traced the cause of the tragic accident to SpaceShipTwo's "feathering" re-entry system, which was apparently engaged too early in the flight. Virgin Galactic has incorporated design changes into VSS Unity and future SpaceShipTwo vehicles to ensure the problem doesn't happen again, company representatives have said.

Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.