A Short Review of Virgin Galactic’s Long History

SpaceShipTwo fires its hybrid engine. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Today, Sept. 27, marks the 15th anniversary of Richard Branson announcing the launch of Virgin Galactic Airways. It’s been a long, winding road between that day and today, filled with many broken promises, missed deadlines, fatal accidents and a pair of spaceflights.

This year actually marks a double anniversary: it’s been 20 years since Branson registered the company and began searching for a vehicle the company could use to fly tourists into suborbital space.

Below is a timeline of the important events over that period.

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Spaceport America and Virgin Galactic: The Numbers Never Added Up

Richard Branson and his children hang out with Project Bandaloop dancers during the dedication of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space facility. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Fourteen years ago, Virgin Galactic and New Mexico promised “tens of thousands” of tourists would fly to space from Spaceport America by 2019. Total thus far: 0.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

When they announced in December 2005 that Virgin Galactic would locate its space tourism business in New Mexico, Virgin Founder Richard Branson and Gov. Bill Richardson made a number of eye-popping claims about why taxpayers should back a plan to build the Southwest Regional Spaceport to serve as the space tourism company’s home base:

  • $331 million in total construction revenues in 2007;
  • 2,460 construction-related jobs;
  • $1 billion in total spending, payroll of $300 million and 2,300 jobs by the fifth year of operation; and,
  • $750 million in total revenues and more than 3,500 jobs by 2020.

Virgin Galactic would sign a 20-year lease as anchor tenant and pay fees based on the number of launches it conducted. New Mexico would use the spaceport, Virgin’s presence and the funds generated to develop a large aerospace cluster.

Surprisingly, New Mexico would spend more money, $225 million, to develop a facility now known as Spaceport America than the $108 million that Branson planned to spend on developing a fleet of five SpaceShipTwos and WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.

Among all the big numbers in the announcement, there was a truly astounding one that was deemed so important it was mentioned twice. (Emphasis added)

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A Brief History of Spaceport America

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

UPDATED: 8/20/19, 12:08 p.m. PDT

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Sometime in 2020, if all goes according to plan, British billionaire Richard Branson will board Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity at Spaceport America in New Mexico and take the first commercial suborbital space flight in history.

The landmark flight, which Virgin has been trying to conduct for 15 years, will also be the culmination of a 30-year effort by New Mexico to become a commercial space power.

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Bill Richardson Accused of Involvement in Jeffrey Epstein Sex Ring

Bill Richardson

Bill Richardson, who pushed through the construction of the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport as governor of New Mexico, has been accused of involvement in a sex trafficking ring run by the deceased financier Jeffrey Epstein and socialite Ghislaine Maxwell.

The Daily Beast reports on court documents that were unsealed last week in a defamation suit against Maxwell by a woman who claimed she was forced to have sex with Richardson and other prominent figures:

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FastFacts: Public-Sector Financial Support for Richard Branson’s Space Companies

Four big thumbs up from Richard Branson and then New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson at the Spaceport America runway dedication in 2010. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

The nonbinding memorandum of understanding involving $1 billion in investment from Saudi Arabia is Richard Branson’s latest success in obtaining financial support from governments for his Virgin Group’s space companies.

The table below shows funding invested directly into the group’s space ventures and indirectly for infrastructure.

VIRGIN GROUP SPACE COMPANIES — DIRECT & INDIRECT GOVERNMENT INVESTMENT
YEARGOVERNMENT
AMOUNT (MILLIONS)
PURPOSE
2006New Mexico~$225 Custom built spaceport named Spaceport America constructed on 18,000 acres of land — Virgin Galactic signed 20 year lease to serve as anchor tenant
2009Abu Dhabi $280Government-owned sovereign wealth fund Aabar Investments obtained 31.6 percent share of Virgin Galactic — plans for a spaceport where SpaceShipTwo would fly in Dubai — future commitment of $100 million more when Virgin Galactic developed viable plan for small-satellite booster (LauncherOne)
2011 Abu Dhabi $110Aabar Investments increased share of Virgin Galactic to 37.6 percent
2017Saudi Arabia$1,000Under non-binding MOU, government-run Public Investment Fund (PIC) would obtain undisclosed share of three Virgin Group space companies: Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit and The Spaceship Company — Virgin Group  to maintain majority ownership
 TOTAL: $1,615
 Future Saudi Arabia $480PIC has an option to invest nearly a half-billion more in Virgin Group space services
 TOTAL:$2,095











The Promise of Spaceport America in the Words of its Supporters

Sir Richard Branson and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Sir Richard Branson and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

“This business will mark a milestone in world history, and it will launch a new space industry — a private space industry, driven by innovators and entrepreneurs and new technologies and bold thinkers.”
— Richard Branson

“What we are calling the second space age will open up a wide range of commercial opportunities, including point-to-point cargo delivery, with personal and business travel.”
— Gov. Bill Richardson

Ten years ago today, Virgin Galactic and New Mexico announced a deal for development what became known as Spaceport America. New Mexico would built a $225-million spaceport with taxpayer’s dollars in the desert near Truth or Consequences. Sir Richard Branson’s new space company would sign a 20-year lease to fly tourists aboard SpaceShipTwo from the facility beginning in 2008.  New Mexico also expected the spaceport to be used by UP Aerospace, Starchaser Industries, and Peter Diamandis’ Rocket Racing League and X Prize Cup.

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NM & Virgin Galactic Announced Spaceport America Deal 10 Years Ago

Early Spaceport America artwork showed facilities built underground. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Early Spaceport America artwork showed facilities built underground. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Space Tourism Flashback
10 Years Ago Today

SANTE FE, NM, Dec. 14, 2005 (New Mexico Economic Development Department PR) — Governor Bill Richardson and Sir Richard Branson, Chairman of the Virgin Companies, today announced that Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial space tourism business, will locate its world headquarters and Mission Control in New Mexico. The agreement between the State of New Mexico and Virgin Galactic calls for New Mexico to build a $225 million spaceport in the southern part of the state, on 27- square miles of state land.

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Richard Branson’s Credibility Begins to Crumble

branson_richardson_ss2
Richard Branson and then-Gov. Bill Richardson at Spaceport America in New Mexico in 2010. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Richard Branson is beginning to take a pounding in the British media as the 10th anniversary of his announcement of SpaceShipTwo approaches next Saturday.

When he announced SpaceShipTwo on Sept. 27, 2004, Branson promised to be flying in only three years. “Within five years, Virgin Galactic will have created over 3,000 new astronauts from many countries,” Branson said.

Commercial flights are now running more than 7 years behind schedule, with the first flight unlikely before next February and possibly much later. Now the British media are beginning to notice.

Why the only thing Branson has fired into space is his ego: 700 VIPs have paid £50m for tickets into orbit. But six years after the Virgin boss promised blast off, his space ship STILL isn’t ready
Daily Mail

Deep in the American West lies a vast, arid desert plain known as ‘Jordana de Muerto’, or ‘Journey of the Dead Man’. The desolate, sun-beaten expanse of deepest New Mexico is flat and deeply inhospitable.

Yet it is here, four hours’ drive from Albuquerque, that a security gate marks the entrance to perhaps the world’s most spectacular white elephant….

Talk your way in and you’ll find a huge futuristic glass, steel and concrete building designed by the superstar architect Sir Norman Foster.

No expense was spared. Indeed, it cost local taxpayers, who footed the entire bill, almost a quarter of a billion U.S. dollars.

Remarkably, every penny of this huge sum, every brick that was laid, and every tonne of publicly-funded concrete poured into the desert, has been devoted to a singular cause: putting Sir Richard Branson into space.

The $80m Virginauts stranded on Earth
London Sunday Times
(Subscription Required)

SIR RICHARD BRANSON is facing a backlash from aspiring astronauts who have booked a $250,000 seat on his space rocket after he revealed on an American television chat show the latest in a series of delays to the inaugural flight.

News of the latest setback to Branson’s commercial space programme came in an interview last week with David Letterman, the programme’s host, when the entrepreneur said he hoped to take the first commercial trip into space on Virgin Galactic in “February or March or next year”. He has previously said that he would be travelling into space by the end of this year.

The latest delay led to claims that the project was in crisis with some customers questioning whether the rocket would ever get into space.

Beam us up, Beardie!
Private Eye

WHEN will Sir Richard Branson launch himself into space? “What people forget is that it is rocket science,” he quipped in February. “It is complicated. But now every box has been ticked and we’re nearly there.” Er, how nearly? “We have a launch date this summer… By September, I hope to have gone to space.”

September is upon us, so presumably Beardie Lightyear is now aboard his rocket, preparing to slip the surly bonds of earth with a cry of “To infinity and beyond!” Or, on past form, perhaps not…











Measure to Redistribute Spaceport America Education Funding Advances in NM Legislature

The Terminal Hangar Facility at Spaceport America will house Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: David Wilson, Spaceport America)
The Terminal Hangar Facility at Spaceport America will house Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: David Wilson, Spaceport America)

Eager to convince skeptical southern New Mexico voters to approve a tax hike to help fund the construction of Spaceport America, then-Gov. Bill Richardson promised that the revenues would bring millions of dollars in direct support to local schools.

Voters in Sierra and Dona Ana counties approved a quarter-cent increase in the local use tax, and Richardson kept his promise. The tax has raised $32 million in revenues so far, with a quarter of it — $8 million — going to local schools to fund additional teachers and new programs.

Now, with Richardson gone due to term limits, that deal is in danger of unraveling as legislators from other areas of the state are eying the revenue.

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Mojave Spaceport CEO Witt Corrects Bill Richardson Story

Mojave Air and Space Port CEO/General Manager Stu Witt has set the record straight about the hiring of former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

It had been widely reported that the East Kern Airport District (EKAD) Board of Directors would be meeting on Wednesday to consider an agreement to hire Richardson to help strengthen California’s informed consent law, which covers commercial spaceflights.

Witt told the EKAD board that these reports are incorrect. The Mojave spaceport did hire Richardson earlier this year as a consultant to help get the original legislation approved. That work is now over, and there are no current plans to hire Richardson, who was paid $10,000 for his services.

The EKAD board did meet in special session on Wednesday to approve an expenditure for improvement work on two of the airport’s main roads. Witt said there’s a need to get the work done now because Mojave is currently experiencing a spell of warm weather that will make the repairs more effective.

The EKAD board will meet for a regularly scheduled session next Tuesday.











New Mexico Governor to Renew Push for Expanded Informed Consent Law

WhiteKnightTwo beside the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space in New Mexico. (Credit: David Wilson, Spaceport America)

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez will make a renewed push to have an informed consent law extended to spacecraft manufacturers and supplier in order to make Spaceport America more competitive. An effort earlier this year failed due to the oppositi0n of trail lawyers.

The renewed push, set for next year’s legislative session, comes as news broke that the Mojave Air and Space Port in California is hiring former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is being hired as a consultant to get similar legislation pushed in the Golden State. The Albuquerque Journal reports:

Scott Darnell, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, said, “Richardson is certainly free to consult or help with the spaceport activities of another state, but in New Mexico, this just highlights how important it is for us to ensure that we continue to lead in this industry by passing legislation in the upcoming session that prevents lawsuit abuse.”

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Bill Richardson: Mojave Space Consultant

UPDATE: The Bakersfield Californian reports that this is old news. Richardson was paid $10,000 earlier this year for acting as a consultant in helping to get the informed consent law passed. “It’s done. It’s over,” says Mojave spaceport CEO Stu Witt.

The Mojave Air and Space Port has signed up a heavy hitter in an effort to strengthen California’s spaceflight informed consent law:

Former Gov. Bill Richardson will be going to work for a California spaceport to help push lawmakers there for an expanded “informed consent” law protecting manufacturers and suppliers of private spacecraft from most civil lawsuits.

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Bill Richardson Under Investigation Again — and This Time It’s About Sex

Never out of the public eye for very long, former New Mexico Gov.  and Spaceport America champion Bill Richardson is once again making headlines — and for all the wrong reasons. The Wall Street Journal reports:

A federal grand jury is investigating former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson over possible campaign-finance violations stemming from his 2008 presidential run, including allegations that he arranged for supporters to pay off a woman who planned to say they had engaged in an extramarital affair, according to people familiar with the inquiry.

Several of Mr. Richardson’s close associates have been granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for their testimony before the panel in Albuquerque, the people said. The panel is one of several grand juries in recent years to examine aspects of Mr. Richardson’s administration and campaigns….

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Rick Homans’ Letter of Resignation as NMSA Executive Director

Richard Branson, Bill Richardson and Rick Homans at the Spaceport America runway dedication ceremony.

To: Board of Directors, New Mexico Spaceport Authority
From: Rick Homans, Executive Director
Date: January 5, 2011
Re: Resignation

First, let me start by thanking each of you on the Board for your commitment to the NMSA and the Spaceport Authority. I have valued the many years that we have worked together. I particularly want to thank Ben Woods, who has served as Chairman for the last six months. We have all benefited from his steady hand and his reasoned approach to complex issues.

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Homans: New Governor Must Make “Complete Commitment” to Spaceport America

Richard Branson, Bill Richardson and Rick Homans at the Spaceport America runway dedication ceremony.

In a blunt letter of resignation to the New Mexico Spaceport Authority Board of Directors, outgoing Executive Director Rick Homas said that the $210 million effort to bring commercial space to the state requires a “complete commitment” from new Republican Gov. Susana Martinez to succeed:

“As of January 1, the Martinez Administration owns Spaceport America and all of its potential. The change that is taking place today is all part of taking ownership, and preparing for the challenges and heavy-lifting that lies ahead.

“Now that we have the spaceport nearly built, the harder work begins — we have to attract the customers, the operators, the manufacturers, suppliers and the R & D. We have to turn Spaceport America, and the surrounding communities, into a major visitor destination. We have to BE the leader of this new commercial spaceflight industry. All this is possible, but only if the Governor leads the way. She has to believe in the project and its massive potential to create jobs and impact education. She has to become its biggest champion and rally her Administration to support this effort. There is no middle ground – nothing short of complete commitment from Governor Martinez and her Administration will allow this project to achieve its full potential, which is the promise we made to the citizens of New Mexico, and particularly the citizens of Dona Ana and Sierra counties who taxed themselves to make Spaceport America happen.

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