Virgin Galactic Promises New Mexico that 2018 will be the Year

Sunset at the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space” terminal hangar facility at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Galactic Vice President Richard DalBello was in Sante Fe, NM on Wednesday with an optimistic message about the company’s plans to fly tourists to space from the state-owned Spaceport America.

“We think we’re at the beginning of a very exciting period,” he told a legislative committee in Santa Fe. “We know you’ve waited a long time and we are coming.”

If that sounds familiar, it should. Like a baseball manager who says “we’ll get ’em next year” when his team’s quest for World Series glory once again falls short, DalBello is the latest in a line of company officials who have ventured to New Mexico over the past decade to assure everyone that the state’s $225 million investment in the spaceport will soon pay off. The new next year is now 2018.

What are the chances that SpaceShipTwo will soar to some definition of space* next year from the Land of Enchantment next year?

Probably pretty good.+ But, there’s still a lot of work to do.

SpaceShipTwo No. 2 Unity has been in flight test for more than a year. Since September 2016, the ship has flown four captive carry flights with the WhiteKnightTwo mother ship and six glide flights.

DalBello told New Mexico legislators that one more glide flight will be conducted “soon” before Unity begins powered tests. The most recent glide test occurred more than three months ago on Aug. 4.

Initial powered flights will be conducted from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California’s High Desert north of Los Angeles. Then the time will come for the “big move” of the program from one desert to another. DalBello said 85 employees will relocate next year to join the 30 the company plans to have in New Mexico by the end of 2017.

Additional test flights will be conducted at Spaceport America outside of Truth or Consequences in 2018. Once those are completed, the first commercial flight with company founder Richard Branson aboard will take place.

As he is wont to do, Branson has been busy making predictions about when flight milestones would be achieved. Earlier in the year, he expected SpaceShipTwo to fly to space* by the end of 2017, with commercial flights beginning about three months after that achievement.

That looked doable earlier this year. However, with a three-month plus gap in flight tests, the year literally shrinking by the day, three upcoming holidays, and Mojave in the midst of its Fall windy period,^ the chances of getting SpaceShipTwo into space* this year looks increasingly unlikely.

So, it’ll probably happen next year. Having invested a fortune into Spaceport America, New Mexico residents are hoping that’s the last time they will have to hear anyone from Virgin Galactic say that.

Notes

* The international definition of space is 100 km (62 miles). During the 1960’s, the U.S. Air Force awarded astronaut wings to X-15 pilots who flew above 50 miles (80.4 km). Virgin Galactic says that SpaceShipTwo will initially fly above 50 miles with plans to reach 62 miles at a later date.

+ If nothing serious goes wrong. “Probably pretty good” does not constitute an actual prediction to which the author, Parabolic Arc or any of its subsidiaries or affiliated organizations can be firmly held.

^ SpaceShipTwo has a limited crosswinds landing capability. For the final — and fatal — flight test of SpaceShipTwo Enterprise on Oct. 30, 2014, the maximum crosswinds limit was 10 mph (16 km/h).  The winds coming off the mountains at this time of year can be quite strong as cold nights give way to milder temperatures once the sun rises.

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