by Douglas Messier
Nearly eight years after Richard Branson dedicated the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space at Spaceport America before a crowd that included Titanic star Kate Winslet and British royal Princess Beatrice, his suborbital space tourism company is moving its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft there.
When Branson dedicated the gateway facility in October 2011, the giant building was largely empty. Virgin Galactic says it is now ready to show off what customers will experience inside the structure.
The dual fuselage WhiteKnightTwo,which is named VMS Eve after Branson’s mother, will say hasta la vista to its windswept desert home at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The company has not announced when SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity will be moved to New Mexico.
VMS Eve and VSS Unity will complete the suborbital flight test program at Spaceport America that began in Mojave. Commercial suborbital flights are set to begin next year at the New Mexico spaceport where Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant.
Last month, Branson laid out a rough schedule for the completion of flight tests. The billionaire plans to be aboard the first commercial flight next year.
Branson said three or four test flights will be conducted from New Mexico, beginning this fall, before engineers allow him to fly. The two suborbital test flights to date — conducted in December and February over California’s Mojave Desert — provided several minutes of weightlessness.
The company is in the process of moving from Southern California to Spaceport America in the New Mexico desert near Truth or Consequences, which has set everything back four months, according to Branson. The test pilots need to practice landing there, he said, before passengers tag along.
Branson declined to say when his flight might happen.
“My track record for giving dates has been so abysmal that I’m not giving dates anymore. But I think months, not years,” he told The Associated Press.
When Branson announced plans for SpaceShipTwo in September 2004, he predicted commercial flights would begin within three or four years. It’s now been 15 years.
The company is expecting to fly 66 passengers to space next year using two spacecraft. The number would grow to 1,565 passengers in 2023 using five SpaceShipTwo vehicles.
Virgin Galactic is expecting a rapid rise in revenues as operations ramp up in New Mexico. These slides are taken from an investor presentation for the company’s $807 million merger with Social Capital Hedosophia.
In addition to operating from Spaceport America, Virgin Galactic plans to fly suborbital flights from other locations around the world. The company is currently negotiating with groups in Italy and the United Arab Emirates. Groups in other nations have expressed interest in hosting flights.
Two other SpaceShipTwo vehicles are under construction in Mojave. Sources have said that one reason WhiteKnightTwo is moving to New Mexico now is to free up space for the assembly of a second carrier aircraft.
Virgin officials say VMS Eve will return to Mojave periodically. The company plans to conduct additional flight tests over California’s High Desert in the years to come.