Branson: Suborbital space shot ’90 percent’ certain in September

SEE YOU IN SEPTEMBER: Richard Branson says he’s “90 percent convinced” that Virgin Galactic will have its inaugural launch from Spaceport America in September.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. – Ready, set, blast off.

After spending at least $212 million to build Spaceport America in the desert of southern New Mexico, the state’s taxpayers have been waiting with alternating degrees of skepticism and anticipation as to when Virgin Galactic will finally launch its first spaceship into suborbital space.

Now, billionaire Richard Branson is offering a more firm date for an inaugural liftoff.

“I’m pretty convinced that by this summer a large, new spacecraft will go into space,” the Virgin Galactic owner said in an interview with Fusion.net, adding, “and then I think by September, myself and my family will go into space. I’m 90 percent convinced that will happen.”

Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant at Spaceport and is lining up well-heeled customers to pay $250,000 to take part in a venture that the telegenic Branson promises will revolutionize travel and tourism. Under the terms of Virgin’s lease, Spaceport will receive $25,000-$75,000 per launch.

Early in the project, Branson predicted a couple of launches per week, with the number rising to 700 per year by 2015. But it’s 2014 and Virgin Galactic has yet to take off.

“It is rocket science, nothing is guaranteed,” Branson told reporter Jorge Ramos. “We’ve had difficulties. NASA had problems when they were first building their spaceships as well.”

Two months ago, Spaceport Executive Director Christine Anderson told New Mexico Watchdog she still has great confidence in Branson and Virgin Galactic.

READY: New Mexico Spaceport Authority Executive Director Christine Anderson says the facility is ready whenever Branson is.

“No, I’m not discouraged (by the delays),” Anderson said. “We’re ready for them … We’ll have front row seats right here in New Mexico, and I think we are getting close.”

Branson has come under criticism on a number of fronts in recent months. British investigative journalist Tom Bower, who has tangled with Branson in the past, released a book blasting Branson’s business model for Virgin Galactic and doubting whether the spaceships the company is building can generate enough power to reach suborbital space.

“In life you will always find one person who has great pleasure in attacking other people,” Branson said. “But 99.99 percent of people, I think, respect people for getting out there and making a difference in the world.”

New Mexico taxpayers were sold on the idea of building the futuristic-looking facility outside Truth or Consequences, N.M., as a way to spur business and technology to the state.

A handful of companies have lifted off with payload launches at Spaceport and Elon Musk’s SpaceX signed a three-year lease last May to take part in a reusable rocket-testing program.

But Virgin Galactic is considered the entity that will largely determine whether Spaceport lives up to its billing.

Click here to see the Branson interview with Fusion.net.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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