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Virgin Galactic to Run its Commercial Flight Operations

Spaceport America is no longer just a shiny shell of hope that space tourism would one day launch from this remote spot

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Virgin Galactic's carrier plane makes its way across the apron in front of Spaceport America following a test flight over its new permanent home near Upham, New Mexico, Aug. 15, 2019. VOA

Spaceport America is no longer just a shiny shell of hope that space tourism would one day launch from this remote spot in the New Mexico desert.

The once-empty hangar that anchors the taxpayer-financed launch and landing facility has been transformed into a custom-tailored headquarters where Virgin Galactic will run its commercial flight operations.

The interior spaces unveiled Thursday aim to connect paying customers with every aspect of the operation, providing views of the hangar and the space vehicles as well as the banks of monitors inside mission control.

Two levels within the spaceport include mission control, a preparation area for pilots and a lounge for customers and their friends and families, with each element of the fit and finish paying homage to either the desert landscape that surrounds the futuristic outpost or the promise of traveling to the edge of space.

Virgin Galactic, Commercial, Flight
Virgin Galactic employees gather at the coffee bar that serves as the heart of the company’s social hub at Spaceport America near Upham, New Mexico, Aug. 15, 2019. VOA

From hotel rooms to aircraft cabins, the Virgin brand touts its designs for their focus on the customer experience. Spaceport is no different.

A social hub includes an interactive digital walkway and a coffee bar made of Italian marble. On the upper deck, shades of white and gray speak to Virgin Galactic’s more lofty mission.

Company officials say the space is meant to create “an unparalleled experience” as customers prepare for what Virgin Galactic describes as the journey of a lifetime.

Timeline not set

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Just how soon customers will file into Virgin Galactic’s newly outfitted digs for the first commercial flights to space has yet to be determined. A small number of test flights are still needed.

“We were the first company to fly a commercial space ship to space with somebody in the back who was not a pilot — first time that somebody like that has been able to get out of their seats and float around the cabin,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said. “So it’s happening. We have a bit more work to do before we get to commercial service.”

Billionaire Richard Branson, who is behind Virgin Galactic, and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, first pitched the plan for the spaceport nearly 15 years ago.

There were construction delays and cost overruns. Virgin Galactic’s spaceship development took far longer than expected and had a major setback when its first experimental craft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot.

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A digital walkway with mirrored ceiling serves as the entrance to the social hub of Virgin Galactic’s digs at Spaceport America near Upham, New Mexico, Aug. 15, 2019. VOA

Critics suggested the project was a boondoggle, but supporters argued that there were bound to be hard and sometimes costly lessons.

Democratic state Sen. George Munoz has enduring concerns about the business model for commercial, low-orbit travel for passengers.

“You can have all the money in the world and come back and say, ‘Was my 30 seconds of fame worth that risk?'” he said.

Munoz says New Mexico’s anticipated return on investment in terms of jobs and visitors is still overdue, with more than $200 million in public funds spent on Spaceport America in cooperation with Virgin Galactic as the anchor tenant.

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New facility

At the facility Thursday, the carrier plane for Virgin’s rocket-powered passenger ship made a few passes and touch-and-goes over a runway.

Behind the spaceport’s signature wall of curved glass, mission control sits on the second floor with an unobstructed view of the runway and beyond.

There’s also space behind two massive sliding doors to accommodate two of Virgin Galactic’s carrier planes and a fleet of six-passenger rocket ships.

Virgin Galactic, Commercial, Flight
Virgin Galactic employees gather in the ground floor lounge at Spaceport America near Upham, New Mexico, Aug. 15, 2019. VOA

Virgin Galactic posted on social media earlier this week that its main operating base was now at the spaceport. And Branson said the wing of Virgin’s next rocket ship has been completed.

Chief Pilot Dave Mackay said the crew in the coming days will fly simulated launch missions to ensure in-flight communications and airspace coordination work as planned. The pilots also will be familiarizing themselves with New Mexico’s airspace and landmarks.

“New Mexico is on track to become one of the very few places on this beautiful planet which regularly launches humans to space,” Mackay said.

Whitesides said that once the test flights are complete, commercial operations can begin. He envisions a fundamental shift in humanity’s relationship with space, noting that fewer than 600 people ever have ventured beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

“We’re going to be able to send way more than that to space from this facility here,” he said. “In another 15 years, I really hope that we’ve had thousands of people go.”

About 600 people have reserved a seat, according to the company, at a cost of $250,000 a ticket.

That buys them a ride on the winged rocket ship, which is dropped in flight from the carrier airplane. Once free, it fires its rocket motor to hurtle toward the boundary of space before gliding back down.

The latest test flight reached an altitude of 56 miles (90 kilometers) while traveling at three times the speed of sound. (VOA)

Next Story

Virgin Galactic to be World’s First Publicly Traded Company

The company announced the completion of the merger on Friday

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Virgin Galactic revealed the arrangement with Social Capital Hedosophia in July. Wikimedia Commons

Richard Branson’s commercial human spaceflight venture Virgin Galactic is set to become the world’s first publicly traded company next week following the completion of its merger with venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya’s Social Capital Hedosophia.

The resulting company is named Virgin Galactic Holdings (VGH) and its common stock, units and warrants are expected to commence trading on the New York Stock Exchange on October 28.

Virgin Galactic revealed the arrangement with Social Capital Hedosophia in July. The company announced the completion of the merger on Friday.

Virgin Galactic already has customer reservations from more than 600 people in 60 countries representing approximately $80 million in total collected deposits, and over $120 million of potential revenue.

Virgin Galactic, World, Company
The resulting company is named Virgin Galactic Holdings (VGH) and its common stock, units and warrants are expected to commence trading on the New York Stock Exchange on October 28. Wikimedia Commons

“Today is the start of a new era for the human spaceflight industry. VG has already pioneered several important space milestones, including sending the first test passenger to space onboard a commercial vehicle, and today’s announcement is no different,” George Whitesides, Cheif Executive Officer (CEO) at Virgin Galactic Holdings, said in a statement.

“Now that VG is a publicly traded firm, anyone can invest in a human spaceflight company that is striving to truly transform the market and be part of the excitement of the commercial space industry,” Whitesides said.

As a result of this transaction, Virgin Galactic has received over $450 million of primary proceeds and at market close on Friday, the business has a market capitalisation of $2.3 billion.

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Virgin Galactic earlier this month unveiled the spacesuits its paying passengers will wear on space tourism, which are expected to commence in 2020. (IANS)