British billionaire Richard Branson is taking another step toward offering rides to space for paying passengers by moving Virgin Galactic operations to Spaceport America in Upham, N.M., pictured here in 2014. (Susan Montoya Bryan/AP)

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic announced Friday that after years of waiting and delays, it will finally move its operations to Spaceport America, the launch site in rural New Mexico that bills itself as “the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport.”

For years the spaceport, which cost New Mexico taxpayers $220 million to build, waited for its anchor tenant to arrive. It stood as a symbol for the uncertain future of whether private companies would one day be able to fly ordinary people to space.

The architectural marvel sat largely empty and inactive as Virgin struggled to build a spacecraft that could safely and reliably ferry people to the edge of space. But after two successful flights through the upper limits of the atmosphere, Virgin said it is now ready to move its operations from Mojave, Calif. — where it has built and tested SpaceShipTwo — to New Mexico.

The company has some 700 people who have signed up to pay as much as $250,000 for tickets to be flown from the New Mexico base to the edge of space, more than 50 miles high.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Branson hailed the move as a crucial moment for the company as it hits what he called the “homestretch” of testing before taking the first passengers later this year.

“Everybody is on a high at Virgin Galactic,” he said. “It’s a good time for space, generally.”

Branson plans to be on the first operational flight, but it’s unclear when exactly that will take place as the company moves through the final phases of its testing program.


A crowd gathers outside Spaceport America for a dedication ceremony in 2011 as Virgin Galactic's mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, sits on the tarmac. (Susan Montoya Bryan/AP)

Branson has been trying to get people to space for nearly 15 years. Then in 2014, the company’s spacecraft came apart, killing the co-pilot, Michael Alsbury. The company rebounded, vowed to make its spacecraft safer and in December finally reached its elusive goal when two test pilots flew SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of 51.4 miles, crossing the Federal Aviation Administration’s definition of space.

It pulled off the feat again in February, this time flying with another pair of test pilots and a crew member, Beth Moses. The Federal Aviation Administration awarded all five members of the flights with commercial astronaut wings.

Those flights gave the company confidence to begin the move to New Mexico as it begins its quest, as Branson said Friday, “to open up and democratize space.”

In the interview, he said it is important that his flight take off from Spaceport America, a stunning landmark settled into the New Mexico desert. Despite the repeated delays, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) said she was always confident Virgin would eventually move into the spaceport.

“Good things are worth waiting for,” she said in an interview.