UPHAM, N.M. — Spaceport America is no longer just a shiny shell of hope that space tourism would one day launch from this remote spot in the New Mexico desert.

The once-empty hangar that anchors the taxpayer-financed launch and landing facility has been transformed into a custom-tailored headquarters where Virgin Galactic will run its commercial flight operations.

Two levels within the futuristic building include mission control, a preparation area for pilots and a lounge for paying customers and their friends and families. Company officials will offer the first glimpse Thursday.

There's also space behind two massive sliding doors that can accommodate two of Virgin Galactic's carrier planes and a fleet of its six-passenger rocket ships.

Just how soon customers will be filing into Virgin Galactic's newly outfitted digs for the first commercial flights has yet to be determined. Company officials have said a small number of test flights are still needed.

Billionaire Richard Branson, who is behind Virgin Galactic, and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, first pitched the plan for the spaceport nearly 15 years ago.

There were construction delays and cost overruns. Virgin Galactic's spaceship development also took far longer than expected and had a major setback when its first experimental craft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot.

Critics suggested the project was a boondoggle, but supporters argued that just like any venture never tried before, there would be difficult and sometimes costly lessons.

Virgin Galactic posted on social media earlier this week that its carrier plane had landed in New Mexico and its main operating base was now at the spaceport. And Branson said the wing of the company's next rocket ship has been completed, with plans to eventually have several of the ships.

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said once the test flights are complete, commercial operations can begin.

"So this moment is just one that we've been working for for a long time and we're very excited to get to it," he said in a social media post last week.

About 600 people have reserved a seat, according to the company. Tickets are $250,000.

That buys them a ride on the winged rocket ship, which is dropped in flight from the carrier airplane. Once free, it fires its rocket motor to hurtle toward the boundary of space before gliding back down.

The latest test flight reached an altitude of 56 miles (90 kilometres) while travelling at three times the speed of sound.

Original Article