Space tourism to be a reality any day now

Santa Fe: Billionaire Richard Branson is moving Virgin Galactic's winged passenger rocket and more than 100 employees from California to a remote commercial launch and landing facility in southern New Mexico, bringing his space-tourism dream a step closer to reality.

Branson said Friday at a news conference that Virgin Galactic's development and testing programme has advanced enough to make the move to the custom-tailored hangar and runway at the taxpayer-financed Spaceport America facility near the town of Truth or Consequences. Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said a small number of flight tests are pending. He declined to set a specific deadline for the first commercial flight.

An interior cabin for the company's space rocket is being tested and pilots and engineers are among the employees relocating from California to New Mexico. The move to New Mexico puts the company in the "home stretch," Whitesides said. The manufacturing of the space vehicles by a sister enterprise, The Spaceship Company, will remain based in the community of Mojave, California.

Taxpayers invested over USD 200 million in Spaceport America after Branson and then Governor Bill Richardson, a Democrat, pitched the plan for the facility, with Virgin Galactic as the anchor tenant. Virgin Galactic's spaceship development has taken far longer than expected and had a major setback when the company's first experimental craft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot.

Branson thanked New Mexico politicians and residents for their patience over the past decade. He said he believes space tourism is likely to bring about profound change. "Our future success as a species rests on the planetary perspective. The perspective that we know comes sharply into focus when that planet is viewed from the black sky of space," Branson said.

Branson described a vision of hotels in space and a network of spaceports allowing supersonic, transcontinental travel anywhere on earth within a few hours. He indicated, however, that building financial viability comes first.

"We need the financial impetus to be able to do all that," he said. "If the space program is successful as I think ... then the sky is the limit." In February, a new version of Virgin Galactic's winged craft SpaceShipTwo soared at three times the speed of sound to an altitude of nearly 56 miles (99 kilometers) in a test flight over Southern California, as a crew member soaked in the experience.

On Friday, that crew member, Beth Moses, recounted her voyage into weightlessness and the visual spectacle of pitch-black space and the earth below. "Everything is silent and still and you can unstrap and float about the cabin," she said. "Pictures do not do the view from space justice. ... I will be able to see it forever."

The company's current spaceship doesn't launch from the ground. It is carried under a special plane to an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) before detaching and igniting its rocket engine. "Release is like freefall at an amusement park, except it keeps going," Moses said. "And then the rocket motor lights. Before you know it, you're supersonic."

Space tourism has not been a complete novelty since millionaire US engineer Dennis Tito in 2001 paid USD 20 million to join a Russian space mission to the International Space Station. Branson's goal has been to "democratise" space by opening travel up to more and more people. The endeavour began in 2004 when Branson announced the founding of Virgin Galactic in the heady days after the flights of SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed manned spacecraft that made three flights into space.

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