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Virgin Galactic Releases Update on New Mexico Spaceflight Operations

Apr 17, 2018

Virgin Galactic’s Executive Vice-President Jonathan Firth spoke to members of the Mesilla Valley Economic Development Alliance, or MVEDA, about the spaceflight tourism company’s latest operations at a recent forum. Firth said the company gets asked frequently about its activities in New Mexico.

“People know that we’re testing our spaceflight systems in California and what they’re curious about and want information on often is what impact is Spaceport America already having in the economy and what sort of value is being returned to the economy,” Firth said.

Virgin Galactic stated its in-state spending so far totals nearly $20 million, including more than $9 million in rent and associated fees at the spaceport since January 2013. The company has 33 full-time employees to-date at its Las Cruces office and plans to move at least 85 more employees from Mojave, California to New Mexico before starting operations.

Additionally, Firth said the company plans to make more local hires in the hospitality sector. Virgin Galactic stated it has agreements with New Mexico firms valued between $2.5 and $3 million.  But Firth didn’t have an exact number of how many people it will hire for guest-related activities.

Virgin Galactic Executive Vice-President Jonathan Firth gives a presentation on the company's activities at MVEDA's Business in the Borderplex forum.
Credit Michael Hernandez

“It’s difficult to put a specific number on it because it’s driven by the number of flights that we’ll be doing and we know what we would like to achieve with the first spaceship and we know that we’re building two more spaceships that will be brought over here as soon as they can be, and how often they can fly will drive our flight schedule which will drive the number of job openings that there will be,” Firth said.

Virgin Galactic successfully completed the first powered test flight of its VSS Unity spacecraft recently in Mojave, the company’s first rocket-powered flight since its original spaceship crashed and killed one of its two pilots in October 2014.  Virgin Galactic stated commercial space operations are set to start at Spaceport America after the Unity test program is complete.

Las Cruces celebrated its first space festival in an effort to boost interest in space activity in the region, commemorated with a replica of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo stationed outside city hall. Firth and organizers planned the three-day festival to coincide with the 57th anniversary of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s flight as the first human in space. Firth said he’s already looking ahead to next year.

“I think with the benefit of a year to plan the next one, I think we can be more thinking about what activities we’d really like to stimulate in the region to help economic benefit but also benefit our education," Firth said. "What are we trying to achieve at NMSU or in LCPS or DACC or whatever it may be and how can we build those links and also entrepreneurial activity here. We have people who are interested in starting businesses, what opportunities are there for them?”

Opportunities that have the watchful eye of business leaders and others, as New Mexico continues to fund operations at Spaceport America with the tab at about a quarter-billion dollars and growing.