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Virgin Galactic spaceflight from Spaceport America delayed due to COVID-19

Virgin Galactic WhiteKnight. (Algernon D'Ammassa/Sun-News/TNS)

New Mexico’s latest emergency health orders targeting COVID-19 will delay scheduled test flights by Virgin Galactic, the spaceline company announced Monday.

Spaceport America’s anchor tenant had planned to bring its spacecraft, the VSS Unity, into space again between Nov. 19 and 23, but as a two-week shelter-in-place goes into effect statewide, closing nonessential business operations and reducing in-person presence at essential operations, Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said the company “will be minimizing our New Mexico operations to the greatest degree possible.”

The flight was anticipated to be among the final test flights before the company launched its first commercial passengers into space on a suborbital flight early in 2021, with Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson among the crew.

The spacecraft has taken two glide flights over Spaceport America, the company’s base of operations in New Mexico, and it has undergone test spaceflights from Mojave, California, where the company’s second spacecraft is under construction.

The WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, from which the Unity initiates its launch, has undergone test flights over New Mexico as well. On Election Day Nov. 3, the distinctive plane flew over Las Cruces as people waiting in line to vote posted photographs on social media.

Meanwhile, on Sunday a rival commercial spaceline company, SpaceX, launched a crew of four astronauts to the International Space Station from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, in the first operational mission for NASA by a private provider.

In New Mexico, however, with hospital officials issuing dire warnings that the state’s hospital system is “essentially full,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Friday that for a two-week period, in-person services for nonessential business transactions must close for two weeks starting Monday, with residents instructed to stay home except for business “essential to health, safety and welfare.”

Even businesses defined as essential are required to minimize staffing as well as occupancy, limiting personnel present to either 25 percent of a business’ maximum fire code capacity or 75 people, whichever is smaller.

“While these new restrictions cause us to adjust our flight schedule, we take this pause in stride and will be prepared to resume our pre-flight procedures and announce a new test flight window as soon as we can,” Colglazier stated in a news release.


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