NEW MEXICO — Richard Branson’s space tourism startup, Virgin Galactic, is moving to New Mexico ahead of its first commercial flight.
After two successful test missions of its rocket-powered space plane over the past few months, the company announced Friday that it will move its spacecraft and 100 of its workers to a building called Spaceport America in the state this summer. They will join about 50 other employees already working there.
It will take a few months to settle in, and Galactic will conduct “the final two or three tests” with only test pilots and crew members on board, Branson told CNN Business’ Rachel Crane on Friday.
Then, it’ll be ready to fly its first paying customers.
Hundreds of people are lined up to ride a short high-speed trip aboard a Virgin Galactic space plane and have agreed to pay $200,000 to $250,000 per seat.
Branson plans to be the first non-crew member to board the plane.
“Hopefully, in not many months’ time, I’ll fulfill my dream of going to space and others will soon follow,” Branson said.
Spaceport America was built about a decade ago by officials in New Mexico mostly using local taxpayer dollars — and it’s been waiting for Virgin Galactic, its anchor tenant, to move in ever since.
Branson’s startup has spent 15 years building and testing its space plane in California’s Mojave desert. It took much longer than expected, in part because of a 2014 accident that killed a co-pilot. Some workers will stay in Mojave at Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing headquarters.
Spaceport America has elicited plenty of pushback in New Mexico. Critics have called the project a deeply flawed plan to reinvigorate the state’s economy with commercial spaceflight. The facility has continued to suck up millions of tax dollars while sitting empty.
But now Virgin Galactic says it’s ready to fulfill its promise of making New Mexico a space tourism and flight viewing destination and offering a major boon for the local economy.
“We’re not just talking about the people we’re sending into space, we’re talking about [bringing out] family and friends,” Branson told CNN Business. “There’ll be flight training inside the spaceport, and there’ll be places to eat for their families, hot air ballooning, fishing and mountain bike riding, etc etc. That’s something that we’ll be organizing.”
Branson’s announcement came one day after Amazon founder Jeff Bezos gave a lengthy update about his own rocket company, Blue Origin, and its plans to build a lunar lander capable of returning humans to the moon.
Bezos has also spent years working on its space tourism plans, and the company is expected to compete directly with Virgin Galactic in that business. Bezos confirmed Thursday that Blue Origin expects to launch its first person into space by the end of the year.
Branson did not say whether he expects Virgin Galactic to be fully operational before Blue Origin. But he told CNN Business it doesn’t matter much to him.
“It’s tremendous what Jeff [Bezos] and his team are doing,” he said. “And the exciting thing for the world now is that you have Jeff, you have Elon [Musk of SpaceX] and ourselves with different approaches to take people into space and colonize places like the moon in future years.”