Failure to launch: Virgin Galactic can’t get off the ground

ANOTHER DELAY: The maiden voyage for Virgin Galactic at New Mexico’s Spaceport has been delayed again. Now, the scheduled launch is set for February or March of 2015.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. — Some New Mexico lawmakers are getting impatient with Richard Branson, the billionaire owner of Virgin Galactic who announced another delay of the company’s inaugural launch at Spaceport America, a commercial space venture that cost state taxpayers $212 million to build.

“There always seems to be some kind of delay before the first flight,” state Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe told New Mexico Watchdog. “I don’t know, I’m getting a little skeptical … This thing is not working yet.”

Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant at Spaceport America, and Branson expected to send passengers into suborbital space in 2012. Many times, Branson has delayed back the launch date.

Earlier this year, Branson said he expected the first liftoff by September. He changed it to the end of 2014, planning a maiden voyage for Christmas.

But Sept. 9, while appearing on late-night television with David Letterman, Branson put off the launch yet again.

“I’ll be on the first flight from New Mexico,” Branson told Letterman. When asked when, he said, “February or March of next year.”

Varela said Spaceport officials are scheduled to appear before the Legislative Finance Committee in October to discuss budgeting for the next fiscal year. “We may have to be tough,” said Varela, LFC’s chairman. “Give us some definitive answers.”

According to an LFC analyst, Spaceport is requesting expansion items totaling $831,000, paid for with enterprise revenue.

Spaceport America is in Sierra County, outside of Truth or Consequences,. and the county pays $300,000 a year to help fund the project.

“They’ve been delaying this for so long I’m not holding my breath,” Sierra County Commissioner Walter Armijo told Reuters. “They promised jobs, tourism and housing, and we haven’t seen any of that. None of the expectations and promises have come true.”

“This is something we’ve invested quite a bit of money into,” Varela said. “They have the customers, apparently, but we don’t have the flights.”

BATTLING THE CRITICS: Spaceport America, the $212-million taxpayer-funded project in southern New Mexico, is facing questions about its financial future.

Of the Spaceport’s $212 million price tag, two-thirds came from state taxpayers; the rest came from bonds backed by Sierra and Doña Ana counties.

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.

At least some of the estimated 700 customers, who spent up to $250,000 for tickets sending them on a ride that lasts a little more than two hours, are starting to complain.

“I think it will fly, but I am not sure whether it will get me into space as I was promised,” one customer told The Sunday Times of London. Branson, however, says “almost none” of the passengers have complained to him.

Why the delays? Branson is vague, but it appears the spaceship is having problems generating enough thrust to go 62.1 miles above the earth’s atmosphere — to what’s called the Karman Line, the internationally recognized border between the atmosphere and outer space.

“It’s clear that (Branson) launched Virgin Galactic without remotely understanding the complexity of the technical challenges involved and, probably, still doesn’t,” British journalist Tom Bower wrote in a highly critical biography of Branson that came out earlier this year.

But some people in the New Mexico Legislature think Spaceport, in general, and Virgin Galactic, in particular, can become profitable.

“No, I’m not having second thoughts,” said state Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, who is noted around the Roundhouse for his fiscal conservatism. “When Challenger blew up, look at how many years before we flew (again). You can’t have that kind of mishap if you’re going to have a sustainable program. I’d rather err on the side of safety.”

Spaceport supporters point to the fact two of the three companies vying for a $3 billion contract to take astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017 have ties to Spaceport America.

One is SpaceX, which signed a three-year lease in 2013 at Spaceport for testing reusable rockets for a series of vertical launches. SpaceX is headed by another high-profile billionaire, Elon Musk, who dreams of colonizing Mars. Another is Sierra Nevada Corp., which supplies rockets for Virgin Galactic.

A number of other aerospace companies, including Boeing, have done testing in southern New Mexico, home to the military’s White Sands Missile Range.

“The Branson thing has been disappointing, I’m going to be honest with you,” said Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque. “But Branson’s group may not be the group that puts (Spaceport) on the map. I think it may be other groups like Boeing that become the big players there.”

Under the Virgin Galactic plan, the well-heeled customers will board an aircraft, called WhiteKnightTwo, which that will carry an orbiter called Space ShipTwo. WhiteKnightTwo will reach 50,000 feet, and SpaceShipTwo will climb to 360,000 feet, a level at which passengers can experience weightlessness, dark skies and view the curvature of the Earth.

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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