Virgin Galactic Outlines Plans for Move to Spaceport America

Credit: David Wilson, Spaceport America
Credit: David Wilson, Spaceport America

While engineers in Mojave prepare WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo for another round of test flights, others in the company are preparing to ramp up operations at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Virgin Galactic senior program manager Mark Butler recently provided a status report to the Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce. The Las Cruces Bulletin reports:

Currently, there are five pilots ready to go, and they need four for operations. By the time Virgin Galactic is ready to launch the space tourism program, it will have eight fully trained pilots.Butler said Virgin Galactic is working with spaceport management to try to get some testing in New Mexico. He said the flight operations software is a product of Ultramain in Albuquerque, world leaders in aircraft software using local companies to support ongoing operations.

“SpaceShip is fine,” he said. “We are testing powered flights. We are testing theory, turing it into practical application.”

The ship has so far hit a maximum speed of 1.4 mach and has exceeded 71,000 feet in height, Butler said. SpaceShip’s wings fold to 60 percent on reentry.

“We are developing rocket motors from scratch,” he said. “It is no mean feat. We know that type of engine has limited capabilities so we are also developing our own liquid rocket engines as well. That is what takes time. We have to get through the development stage happening now in California.”

Butler said they are working in Las Cruces also to prepare spaceport for operations later this year and the construction of the interior of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space building should be complete by late summer.

“The key thing is the team is getting ready to move,” he said. “We have eight people in the Las Cruces office with their families coming. In total, about 80 employees are moving to this area, Right now, we have two in the office from New Mexico.”

To Learn More

Officials share plans for Spaceport: 2014 to be a year of testing
The Las Cruces Bulletin

Spaceport America: ready, set, wait
Albuquerque Business First

  • therealdmt

    Well, it looks like they’re slowly continuing to move forward.

    Interesting side note there about developing a liquid engine – I think that’s the first we’ve from them heard on that. The [formerly] much-touted hybrid motor is officially an albatross. Looks like you got that one right, Doug. The “limited” part (along with a recent reveal that their passenger agreement only guarantees 50 miles, not 100km) also suggests that you’ve been right about their initial operational flights not reaching the advertised goal of 100km.

    But, once again, slowly but slowly, they appear to be closer than ever to being the first company to offer regularly scheduled passenger service to space (and back!). When that happens all depends on the results of the flight tests though, which, as they’ve found out, can be a process of working through problems (sometimes significant, substantial ones) rather than simply flight verifying designs.

    Hopefully we see some exciting progress over the next few months. Could be cool. But, we’ll see – it’s been a long, slow, frustrating ride so far.

  • Douglas Messier

    The comment about liquid engine development puzzles me. Last I heard they were not going to put it in SpaceShipTwo. There’s also the possibility that Google could either step into fund the liquid fuel technology, or purchase it and develop the LauncherOne rocket on its own. A lot of uncertainty there.

    In addition to stories I was hearing about problems they’ve had with the hybrid engine, there was a noticeable shift in VG’s rhetoric over the past year or so. They used to distinguish between the number of people who went above the Karman line and the total number who went above 50 miles. I think there’s a difference of 7 or 8. Sometime over the last year, they just went with the higher number that includes all the X-15 pilots above 50 miles.

    To me, that doesn’t matter so much. It’s mostly that VG has consistently sold the experience to customers as being 100 km and above with a certain period of micro-g. If we hadn’t asked and knew otherwise, they’d still be selling it that way. I know the agreement says 50 miles, but it was at odds with the marketing.

  • therealdmt

    I’ve always actually liked the 50 mile standard for the start of “space” better anyways. I guess it’s because that was the commonly accepted standard when I was a kid — 50 miles for astronaut wings, the X-15 program and all that. When people started talking about 100 km, it felt like an attempt by latecomers to redefine things on their own terms (which, I guess, it actually was).

    I’m really more used to kilometers than miles now anyway, so 100 km is fine and it’s a nice, easy number to deal with. Practically-wise I don’t think it matters too much — the aerodynamic flight controls won’t be working at either altitude what with essentially no air and all!

  • Nickolai

    You may not know this: 100km actually has a technical derivation. Theodore Von Karman, famed aerodynamicist, calculated that at nearly 100km, an airplane would have to essentially fly at orbital velocity in order for its wings to generate sufficient lift for it to stay aloft. Since it’s at orbital velocity, the lift is no longer relevant, so that’s why 100km+ is considered space. At 50 miles (~62 km) I guess there’s still enough air for an aircraft to generate lift without getting to orbital velocity.

  • Tonya

    It’s also worth remembering that the Ansari X Prize, which started this whole ball rolling used the 100km definition. Thus for the moment, SpaceShipOne still remains the only vehicle capable of achieving the goals set by that foundation.