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Virgin Galactic announces new steps toward offering thrill rides to space

Virgin Galactic moving operations to New Mexico

Santa Fe, New Mexico -- Richard Branson and his company Virgin Galactic announced new steps Friday toward offering thrill rides into space for paying passengers, with the company immediately starting to move personnel and space vehicles to a launch and landing facility in New Mexico.

"We are now ready to bring New Mexico a world-first, world-class spaceline," Branson said. "Virgin Galactic is coming home to New Mexico where together we will open space to change the world for good."

In February, a new version of Virgin Galactic's winged craft SpaceShipTwo soared at three times the speed of sound to an altitude of nearly 56 miles in a test flight over Southern California, as a crew member evaluated the passenger experience. 

Branson said Virgin Galactic's development and testing program has advanced enough to make the move to the New Mexico town of Truth or Consequences from California.  

"What's exciting is we're coming to the end of our test program and we're ready to start moving all our people down into the spaceport," Branson said Friday on CBSN.

New Mexico officials have eagerly anticipated the arrival of space tourism by Virgin Galactic for more than a decade. Taxpayers invested over $200 million in Spaceport America after Branson and then-Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, pitched the plan for the facility, with Virgin Galactic as the anchor tenant. 

WhiteKnightTwo, carrying SpaceShipTwo, s
The hangar facility at Spaceport America, northeast of Truth Or Consequences, on October 17, 2011 in New Mexico. Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

New Mexico "is really the birthplace of so many aerospace, aeronautical engineering aspects, and this is now complete fruition for a state like New Mexico," Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said on CBSN Friday.

While the announcement signals the final countdown to regular commercial service for paying customers, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides has declined to say how many more test flights must be conducted. Branson said he would like to make his first sub-orbital flight this year.

"Hopefully by the end of the year I'll be going up, and then well start taking other people up," he said. 

Branson's goal has been to open up space travel to more and more people. And hundreds of potential customers have committed as much as $250,000 up front for rides in Virgin's six-passenger rocket, which is about the size of an executive jet. But Virgin Galactic's spaceship development has taken far longer than expected and had a major setback when the company's first experimental craft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot.