Investigative Series on Spaceport America Ends With a Whimper

SpaceShipTwo glides over the Mojave Desert after being released from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship. (Credit; Virgin Galactic)

The fifth and final installment of NMPolitics.net’s series on Spaceport America was published today: After years of delays, Virgin Galactic prepares for spaceflights from NM

The story mostly features interviews with Virgin Galactic officials outlining their plans to start commercial operations from New Mexico. There will be a series of additional flight tests in Mojave, Calif., and then SpaceShipTwo will move down to Spaceport America for some additional tests before the start of commercial flights. Richard Branson has been prediction ticket holders will start flying in 2018.

In other words, nothing we haven’t been hearing for years and years, albeit with a shiny new set of dates.

I’ve been disappointed in this series. It’s relied too much on the optimistic assurances of folks at Spaceport America and Virgin Galactic who have been optimistic for about a decade now and have not delivered on the extravagant promises made when the $225 million spaceport was sold to voters.

One thing the author doesn’t seem to understand is how fragile the SpaceShipTwo program is as it moves toward the operational phase. At present, there is one WhiteKnightTwo and one SpaceShipTwo. That’s it.

In other words, Virgin Galactic is one bad day away from having nothing to fly. Given that it’s taken the company about three years to recover from the loss of SpaceShipTwo Enterprise in October 2014, they risk an enormous amount every time WhiteKnightTwo takes off down Runway 12-30 here in Mojave.

If there was another accident now, would Branson and his Abu Dhabi investors put in the money and time needed to recover? Would customers have the patience to wait out additional delays? Would anyone have confidence in Virgin Galactic and the SpaceShipTwo program at that point?

Even once they have two or three spaceships operating, would Virgin Galactic want to continue flying customers if they lose a half dozen millionaires and their two pilots on a commercial flight? What are the odds of being able to safely fly the current manifest of about 650 passengers (about 110 flights) without losing a vehicle? That’s a tall order.

Another accident that ends the SpaceShipTwo program will leave Spaceport America high and dry. What would it cost for Virgin Galactic to break its lease at the spaceport if it came to that? A thorough analysis of the lease terms would have been a welcome addition to this series. It’s one of the few leases that Spaceport America officials have released without the terms being blacked out.