Monday Musings: Brazil’s Choices, VG’s Finances & More

Launch trajectories from Alcantara (Credit: AEB)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

A few thoughts as we begin week 403 of the Covid-19 lock down….

Location. Location. Location.

The three most important words in real estate. And Brazil’s Alcantara Launch Center has got it.

Located on Brazil’s east coast closer to the equator than the European spaceport in French Guiana, Alcantara is perfectly situated for both equatorial and polar launches. So far, it has only hosted suborbital launches as repeated orbital launch vehicle programs have faltered.

There’s definite interest in operating from the underused base. The Brazilan Space Agency has received 14 proposals in an open call that ends on Aug. 31.

That sounds great, but there’s a catch. Most companies these days don’t locate facilities anywhere without having their hands out. They want governments to build facilities, improve infrastructure and provide lavish tax breaks worth many millions of dollars.

Unfortunately, Brazil’s space budget is very small. The question officials will likely face as they sort through the proposals is: Just how much space can Brazil afford?

The answer will determine whether Alcantara blossoms into a world-class launch facility or remains, perhaps perpetually, the spaceport of the future.

SpaceShipTwo cabin interior. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

It’s been a long road
Getting from there to here…

Virgin Galactic has suffered many, many delays in its 16 year quest to launch Richard Branson and thousands of others on suborbital joy rides.

VG typically deals with these delays by announcing new programs and agreements and holding various events designed to show progress even as the schedule slips further to the right for reasons the company tries to keep quiet.

The last two months have been no exception. VG has:

  • announced a MOU with NASA for a program to train commercial astronauts for orbital missions
  • hired a new CEO from the Disney Company
  • unveiled the design for SpaceShipTwo’s interior
  • announced plans for a Mach 3 transport plane carrying up to 19 passengers
  • signed a MOU with Rolls-Royce on engine development.

All that came in the run up to another distressing quarterly earnings report earlier this month. A $63 million net loss ($123 million for the year). Zero quarterly revenues. Scant prospects for much revenue for the rest of 2020. And existing shares to be diluted by plans to sell $460 million of new stock.

And yet another delay. When VG and Social Capital Hedosophia were selling a merger last year that made VG a public company, they projected commercial flights to begin in June 2020. That clearly didn’t happen.

SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity makes first glide flight at Spaceport America in New Mexico. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

The new plan is to conduct two more flight tests of SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity beginning in the fall. If those go well, Branson will be aboard the first commercial flight in Q1 2021.

Little wonder the stock tanked. All the future plans in the world can’t make up for a lack of progress in the air. And there hasn’t been very much lately.

Unity‘s last powered flight was on Feb. 22, 2019, from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The next one, scheduled this fall from VG’s operating base at Spaceport America in New Mexico, means there will be at least a 19-month gap in suborbital launches.

In between, Unity has flown only two glide flights at Spaceport America. All this from a company that is expecting to fly Unity and its four sister ships multiple times per week.

The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly slowed testing. However, California didn’t issue a stay-at-home order until March 19, 2020. New Mexico followed suit four days later on March 23.

During those 13 months, the only flight by Unity was beneath WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve as the space plane was relocated to New Mexico. The glide flights came later.

The long gap in powered flights has never been fully explained. Outfitting the passenger cabin and improving the ship for multiple flights shouldn’t have taken that long.

It should have been a question raised by analysts during the quarterly earnings call. However, VG used SEC restrictions relating on the stock sale to avoid taking any questions from analysts.

It’s August in the High Desert, which means things are getting really icky. There are major wildfires across the state, the smoke from some of them fouling the Antelope Valley’s air. Utility companies are also planning rolling blackouts to maintain the sagging power grid.

And it’s hot. The temperature reached an oven-like 108 F (42.2 C) in Mojave on Sunday. We’re looking at 109 F (42.8 C) today. None of which is helping the brave firefighters battling the blazes across the Golden State.

On Friday, we had what Doug Jones of the late, lamented XCOR calls six inches of rain. This is a summertime phenomenon where big raindrops fall about six inches or so from each other.

Unfortunately, there’s seldom any accumulation, which does nothing to cool things down. And the lightning these storms can bring sometimes set off brush and wildfires.

Wherever you are, stay cool (or warm, if you’re south of the equator). Wear a mask and stay safe from the coronavirus.