Marking a new era in space tourism, Virgin Galactic's "Gateway to Space" is now ready for business, the company said on Thursday.
The new spaceport was unveiled at Spaceport America in Upham, N.M., a hangar that will eventually provide launch and landing capabilities for Virgin Galactic to run its commercial flight operations.
The hangar will give paying customers the opportunity to witness every aspect of the space launch 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 every element paying homage to either the desert landscape that surrounds the futuristic outpost or the promise of traveling to the edge of space.
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 area is meant to create "an unparalleled experience" as customers prepare for what Virgin Galactic describes as the journey of a lifetime.
In a blog post, Virgin Galactic said it moved to Spaceport after two successful spaceflights, including the most recent one in February, where Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses became "the first commercial astronaut to unstrap and float free in the cabin of a commercial spaceship."
"In the coming days, the team will use VMS Eve to fly simulated spaceship launch missions, with pilots and Mission Control ensuring that all in-flight communications and airspace coordination work as planned," Virgin Galactic Chief Pilot Dave Mackay wrote in the post. "The pilots will replicate some of SpaceShipTwo’s low altitude flight profile and familiarize themselves with the New Mexico airspace and landmarks."
VMS Eve (the current version is known as WhiteKnightTwo), is the carrier mothership for Virgin Galactic and launch platform for SpaceShipTwo-based Virgin SpaceShips.
"It's just a wonderful, special day for us," Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said in comments obtained by Space.com. "It's just a really important day, to share with you some of the progress and to declare operational readiness."
Virgin's spaceflight system will consist of the carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo and the SpaceShipTwo (also known as VSS Unity) spaceplane, with WhiteKnight doing the leg work to get to 50,000 feet. From there, SpaceShipTwo will drop free, use its rocket motor and get to suborbital space.
Virgin Galactic, co-founded by billionaire Richard Branson, is still testing the two-plane system in simulated missions, with the company adding in the blog post that VMS Eve arrived at Spaceport America earlier this week and operated a test flight on Thursday.
"In the coming days, the team will use VMS Eve to fly simulated spaceship launch missions, with pilots and Mission Control ensuring that all in-flight communications and airspace coordination work as planned," Mackay wrote. "The pilots will replicate some of SpaceShipTwo’s low altitude flight profile and familiarize themselves with the New Mexico airspace and landmarks."
Mackay added that VMS Eve will return to Mojave "later this year" to pick up Unity and when both planes are in New Mexico, additional testing will take place. From there, the company "will move to the start of commercial service and begin flying our future astronauts into space."
Spaceport, a dream of Branson and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, further detailed the announcement in a separate blog post.
Space tourism industry
According to investment firm UBS, the space tourism and space travel industry is expected to become a $20 billion market. Of that, $3 billion is expected to come from space tourism by 2030, as companies like Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Blue Origin and others continue to grow.
Passengers aboard SpaceShipTwo will get to experience weightlessness and experience views that few on Earth have ever experienced, but it won't come cheap — a ticket costs $250,000. Even so, more than 600 people have put down a deposit, according to Space.com.
SpaceX, which competes with Virgin Galactic, said last year that Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa would be the first private person to fly solo around the Moon in 2023.
NASA is also looking to get into the space tourism industry, announcing in June that it would open the International Space Station to two private astronauts per year.
It's unknown exactly how much the trips will cost, but following the announcement, The Sun reported early estimates have the trips costing around $50 million per astronaut.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.