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.

  • Search

    What does it say about former NM Governor Bill Richardson role in all this? Wasn’t it he that joined up with Branson to push the NM legislature for funding? A grand swindle – no worse than cities building stadiums for billionaire owners to put their teams in – but at least those are semi predictable ROI. Face it – this was a Solyndra-style sham from day one and anyone with any knowledge of spaceflight realities and politics could have seen the much ballyhooed “space tourism flights” were unabashedly overpromised. Repeated, though on lesser scale, in the slew of other “space ports” throughout the US that had exciting press stories of spaceplanes coming and going like so many airliners only to never see a flight (Midland, Ellington, Florida, where else?)

  • Douglas Messier

    After the Wright brothers flew, nobody went out and spent the 1903 equivalent of $225 million building them an airport to fly from. There was a lot of naivety about how easy it would be to commercialize SpaceShipOne. Rutan, Diamandis, Richardson…they all believed their own BS. That’s the easiest way to get into trouble in this business, thinking you’ve got it all figured out.

  • Hemingway

    So disappointing – NMPolitics.net paints such a rosy picture. I agree with the comments of Parabolic Arc. There are so many questions about Spaceport America that are left unanswered.

  • Ron Fenn

    Truth or Consequences, the city that gives so much to Spaceport America, over and above the tax payments, showed a drop of 35% Gross Receipts in June 2017 compared to the same period in 2016, and that included the much anticipated spending from Spaceport Americas Cup (1st) that featured College rocketeers from around the world (?). Yet, the few optimists who run the local government and a few boutiques are willing to take bread from the mouths of our people to feed the Giant “V” in the desert. As with the dinosaur, critical thinking has disappeared from our planet.

  • publiusr

    “What does it say about former NM Governor Bill Richardson role in all this?”

    He pushed for Hyper Soar, a gov’t project that I think would have been of more utility than any of these sub-orbital ME-163 toys

    http://www.geocities.ws/spacetransport/hypersoar.html

    It would have taken many years–and breakthoughs still needed though.

  • Bruce

    The promotion of the spaceport tax election employed human greed in perfect proportion with a flamboyant British billionaire, space mistique, and the ambitions of a second-tier presidential candidate to make his backwater state seem forward-facing.

  • DJN

    Another big government boondogle by a big government Dem politician. Too bad for NM, but they get what they voted for.

  • James

    To be honest Rutan at least has a excuse. He’s a dreamer and engineer. Richardson and Diamandis….not so much.

  • ReusablesForever

    The Spaceport’s principal advantage at this point is its isolation. That’s what’s needed for suborbital flights and present and future test flights. It’s right in the middle of the proverbial “nowhere” – in case of an accident, there is little opportunity for collateral damage.

    But that very isolation will be its downfall in the long run. It is so far away from established transportation facilities that future commercial passenger and cargo transportation would have long extra legs attached to their routes. The added cost and time delays of those extra legs would be prohibitive for commercial operations. And there is the problem of continental US supersonic overflight, or, obviously, orbital launch (except maybe for a fully reusable launch system).

  • ThomasLMatula

    Most of the launches to orbit would take place over WSMR, so no restrictions on sonic booms. BTW time it leaves the range it is higher than the Shuttle was when it crossed the US to land at KSFC.

    In the 90’s they were even looking to use it for a laser launch system, since the high altitude location and clear air would be ideal. Similarly as mag rail launch system would work at the site because of the orientation of the mountains.

    In theory Falcon 9 could fly from there and, because of the altitude, have a 5% increase in performance.

  • ReusablesForever

    Yep. In the middle 90s, John Mankins, NASA, was pushing the HRST study (Highly Reusable Space Transportation). His vision was to use an electro-magnetic launcher in an inclined vacuum tube – through a mountain yet, Our version, Rockwell’s, version use a horizontal mag-lev with an air-breathing winged vehicle – sporty doesn’t even cover it! Everyone faithfully put in their two bits worth but the study died after the final review in DC – June ’97, I think.

    Someone WAS using a cannon to launch payloads. They welded two 16-inch cannons together and fired it off the Bahamas(?). I recently saw that there was still one of those intact somewhere, NMTech?

  • Republican Susana Martinez has gone right along with it + the original idea came from former NM Repub Guv Garrey Carruthers. BLAME goes to the NM “Pie in the Sky” Economic Development Department who supported every failed deal in the state. As for the location, there is nothing wrong with it. $pacepork is adjacent to White Sands, an official spaceport where the Shuttle landed in 1985. The PROBLEM is that we should be launching US astronauts from Spaceport & NOT from Kazhikistan! We are at the mercy of the Ruskies – PRIVATIZE $PACEPORK America immediately – the state of NM CANNOT afford to spend over $3M per year for NOTHING! DUMP Branson & sue him for breach of contract!

  • Abdul M. Ismail

    Sorry to be so blunt but “…they all believed their own BS…” is the motto of “New Space”.

    New Space is filled with either multi millionaires or wannabe fanboys with no game plan yet have lengthy resumes that include “motivational speaker” on the LinkedIn profile but possess the gift of the gab. Either way, they manage to convince venture capitalists or the public sector that what they have will make them a fortune or provide return on investment. When these sources dry up, then there’ll be a lot of mistrust in this sector – especially towards the entrepreneurial contingent.

    So, many of these people are doing an incredibly disservice to the industry – but they don’t care as they’re cashing in on the here and now.

  • Jeff2Space

    Making it sound like all of “new space” is essentially hurting the industry is painting “new space” with far too broad of a brush.

    Considering the year that SpaceX has had so far, they appear to finally be at the point where they’re delivering on their “commercial launch” promises. Yes, they’ve had setbacks and delays (space is hard). But, they’re also doing something no other launch company is doing, which is recovering first stages and reusing them for less than what it would have cost to build a new first stage. That’s pushing the state of the art in a direction that commercial launch has never pursued. That’s ground breaking and will have a lasting, positive, impact on the industry, IMHO.

  • Abdul M. Ismail

    A good friend of mine is a Director at Space X – and yes, they are doing ground breaking things.

    However, I don’t class Space X as a New Space company.

    A classmate of mine is also one of the founders of PlanetLabs and I suppose they can be classed as a New Space company.

    If they (the companies) actually produce something and push the limits beyond what is already known, then I’ll give them due credit.

    The people I’m critical off are those that talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. I know a few people that fit that category and they do an incredible disservice to the sector with their endless stream of bullshit.

  • Jeff2Space

    Confused why SpaceX isn’t “new space”. Is Blue Origin “new space”?

  • Abdul M. Ismail

    Space-X receive contracts from the public sector which in part funds its R&D.

    As far as I’m aware, Blue Origin are funded in-house.

    When Space-X first started, I think they too were in-house.

    So, I guess from that perspective, Space X started as a New Space company but are now ‘normal space’.

    Once again, though. I’m not referring to these guys that are producing technology. I’m referring to those that jumped on this bandwagon to milk venture capitalist and the public sector dry with their endless drivel.

  • Hemingway

    From KRWG: “Without Repeal, County Spaceport Tax Continues After Construction Bonds Are Paid Off .” Shocking revelation- County Spaceport Tax Continues FOREVER?

    http://krwg.org/post/without-repeal-county-spaceport-tax-continues-after-construction-bonds-are-paid

  • windbourne

    Have to differ with you.

    Old space develops little to nothing, without money and direction from NASA. Worse yet, they are on guaranteed profits and simply milk the system.

    SpaceX is MOSTLY taking their OWN money (profits that they earned) and developing their own gear. Yeah, CCXdev is split, but the amount of money that they got from COTS was minor.

  • windbourne

    Funny to read the comments in here esp. in light of real facts
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaceport_America#History

    The spaceport’s initial concept was proposed by Stanford University engineering lecturer and tech startup advisor Dr. Burton Lee in 1990.[6] He wrote the initial business and strategic plans, secured US$1.4 million in seed funding via congressional earmarks with the help of Senator Pete Domenici, and worked with the New Mexico State University Physical Science Laboratory (PSL) to develop local support for the spaceport concept.[citation needed]

    In 2003, the task force petitioned new Economic Development Cabinet Secretary Rick Homans who then picked up the torch. Homans presented the idea to state Governor Richardson and negotiated with the X Prize Foundation to locate the X Prize Cup in New Mexico.

    Homans grew up dem, became GDI, and then a GOP.
    So, all in all, the GOP has plenty of fingers in this.

    And I have NO doubt that once this takes off, ideally with BO flying there as well, then the some ones here bashing richardson, will be proclaiming that this was GOP, or that the GOP rescued it, even though it was with GOP controlling things, that SA went downhill.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Actually the writing of the business plan was given by the PSL to the Center for Economic Development and Research Assistance at the School of Business Administration at NMSU. Since Dr. Boberg knew of my interest in space he assigned the task to me. I was in the Ph.D. Program at the time and worked for them as part of my assistantship. I never met or talked to Dr. Lee about it, nor ever received any feedback on it.

    The plan I wrote, and which became part of the feasibility study, never mentioned space tourism but focused on the SER (Science, Education, Research) markets that already existed. It was built around the potential of the DC-X which was being prepared for testing and the commercial sounding rocket already flying from WSMR. It was focused on revenue from SER markets with the spaceport partnering with the universities in the Rio Grande research cooridor along with Sandia, Los Alamos. The was also the potential of military use. Remember, the DC-X was a DOD funded project. It was intended to be focused on an evolutionary approach to RLV technology and the development of SER markets that would benefit from it.

    The focus and operation of Spaceport America has little relationship to that original business plan, other than it’s a spaceport. Although the only suborbital flights they have had have been a dozen or so SER launches, they are treated as an after thought.

  • ThomasLMatula

    NM Tech was not involved in the 1960’s effort but took a clean sheet look at it in the 1990’s.

  • NewSpace Palentologist

    The money they got from COTS was minor if you consider $396M minor. Elon has done well with his endeavours but he has been best at getting lots of government (federal, state, and local) money and making folks think he is financing development with his own money.

  • windbourne

    So, you are calling Musk, auditors, and investors, liars.

    What information do you have, other than breitbart, faux news, that he is not investing his and others money into spacex?

    And other than
    1) part of CCXdev and COTS for SpaceX,
    2) the loan for Tesla,
    3) NY building a .5B facitility for .75B to bring GF1 there,
    4) NV giving him a tax break to build GF2 there,

    does he have?

    Keep in mind that ULA gets 1B / year subsidy for the last 10 years;
    Colorado gave arrow a .5B tax break just to move their HQ there;
    Wisc GOP is giving Fox Conn 3+B tax break as well as removing a number of regulations that will allow them to pollute the great lakes;
    etc. etc.

    IOW, BOTH foxconn and ULA have bigger subsidies than all of what musk has gotten.

  • patb2009

    Can the original plan get published?

  • ThomasLMatula

    It was as part of the feasibility report in 1992, I imagine there are physical copies in the spaceport’s archives and maybe in the NMSU library. I don’t think it was ever digitized, that was when everything was still on paper. I have a copy packed in a box somewhere in my garage with my old spaceport paper work, but I wouldn’t know which box to start with.