Richard Branson moves Virgin Galactic's airline passenger rocket and more than 100 California employees to a remote commercial launch and landing facility in southern New Mexico, bringing his space tourist dream a step closer to reality.
Yesterday, billions said at a press conference that Virgin Galactic's development and testing program has advanced enough to make the move to the tailor-made hangar and runway at the taxpayer-funded Spaceport America facility near Truth or Consequences town.
Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said a small number of flight tests are expected. He refused to set a specific deadline for the first commercial aircraft.
An interior cabin for the company's space rocket is being tested, and pilots and engineers are among the employees moving from California to New Mexico. The move to New Mexico puts the company in the "home stretch," Whitesides said.
The production of spacecraft from a sister company, the space company, will remain based in the community of Mojave, California.
Taxpayers invested over US $ 200 million in Spaceport America after Branson and then Governor Bill Richardson, a Democrat, set the plan for the facility, with Virgin Galactic as an anchor rental.
Virgin Galactic's space development has taken much longer than expected and had a major setback as the company's first experimental craft collapsed during a test flight in 201
Branson thanked new politics and residents of New Mexico for their patience over the past decade. He said he believes space tourism – once up – is likely to lead to profound change.
"Our future success as a species rests on a planetary perspective," said Branson. "The perspective we know comes into focus when that planet is seen from the black sky in space."
Branson described a vision of hotel in the room and a network of space ports that allow supersonic, transcontinental travel anywhere on earth in a matter of hours. However, he indicated that building economically viable comes first.
"We need the economic drive to be able to do all that," he said. "If the room program succeeds as I think … then the sky is the limit."
In February, a new version of the Virgin Galactic wing SpaceShipTwo rose three times the speed of sound to a height of nearly 99 km in a test plane across Southern California, as a crew member who dreamed of the experience.
Yesterday, it described the crew member, Beth Moses, his journey to weightlessness and the visible play in the pitch and earth beneath.  "Everything is quiet and quiet, and you can unstrap and float about the cabin," she said. "Photos don't make the view from room justice. … I want to see it forever."
The company's current spacecraft does not start from the ground. It is carried under a special plan to a height of about 15,240m before it loosens and ignites its rocket engine.
"The release is like a free fall in an amusement park, except that it continues," Moses said. "And when the rocket engine lights up. Before you know it, you're supersonic."
Earlier, Branson said he would like to make his first suborbital flight this year as one of the venture's first passengers on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20. But he didn't talk about timelines yesterday. The pressure on the time frame, Whitesides said he anticipates the first commercial aircraft within a year.