My Podcast Appearance on Tipping Point New Mexico

I recently talked with Paul Gessing who runs the Tipping Point New Mexico podcast. We talked about my article, “Spaceport America and Virgin Galactic: The Numbers Never Added Up,” which looked at the promises made to justifying spending $225 million on a custom-built spaceport for Richard Branson’s suborbital space tourism company. We also discussed Virgin Galactic’s recent move to go public.

Enjoy!

Five Years Ago SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise Crashed in the Mojave Desert

The spot where part of SpaceShipTwo’s cockpit crashed with the body of Mike Alsbury. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Five years ago today, SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise broke up over the Mojave Desert during a flight test. Co-pilot Mike Alsbury died and pilot Pete Siebold was seriously injured.

The crash ended Virgin Galactic’s effort to begin commercial crewed suborbital spaceflights in the first quarter of 2015. Those flights are not forecast to begin in June 2020 — five years later than planned.

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Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Goes Public With Extravagant Promises to Keep

Richard Branson wears the SpaceShipTwo flight suit. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

After 15 years of making extravagant but unkept promises to fly more than 600 “future astronauts” to space, Richard Branson must now please an entirely new group of people who are usually much shorter on patience: shareholders.

Following the completion last week of a merger with Social Capital Hedosophia (SCH), the British billionaire’s Virgin Galactic suborbital “space line” will begin trading under its own name on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on Monday.

Going public now is an unusual move for a space tourism company that hasn’t flown a singlet tourist to space since Branson announced the SpaceShipTwo program in 2004. Some might see it has putting the cart before the horse.

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Spaceport America Releases Unredacted Leases

The Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space terminal hangar facility (center), Spaceport Operations Center (Left) and “Spaceway” (Runway) at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NMPolitics.net and its publisher, Heath Haussamen, have settled a lawsuit against the secretive New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) that runs Spaceport America. The authority agreed to release a group of fully unredacted leases of tenants at the spaceport and to pay the website $60,000.

The released tenant leases included:

  • Energeticx.net
  • EXOS Aerospace
  • SpaceX
  • UP Aerospace
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Virgin Galactic, Under Armour Unveil SpaceShipTwo Flight Suit

SpaceShipTwo flight suit. (Credit Virgin Galactic0

NEW YORK, Oct. 16, 2019 (Virgin Galactic PR) — In January 2019, Virgin Galactic Founder Sir Richard Branson and Under Armour CEO and Founder Kevin Plank announced a collaboration which saw Under Armour become Virgin Galactic’s Technical Spacewear Partner. Today, the companies unveiled the collaboratively designed spacewear system for Virgin Galactic astronauts comprising of a base layer, spacesuit, footwear, training suit and Limited Edition astronaut jacket. It is the first such collection ever created specifically for private astronauts.

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SatRevolution, Virgin Orbit & Polish Universities Join to Launch CubeSat to Mars

Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl 747 performs its first captive carry of LauncherOne. (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

KATOWICE, Poland, 9 October 2019 (Virgin Orbit PR) — Scientists and engineers from nearly a dozen Polish universities have teamed up with Poland-based satellite company SatRevolution and Sir Richard Branson’s small satellite launch company Virgin Orbit to establish a new consortium to design and carry out the world’s first dedicated commercial small satellite mission to Mars. The parties established the consortium at a formal signing ceremony during the Impact Mobility’ 19 rEVolution conference in Katowice, Poland.

The consortium will jointly develop the first in a series of up to three Mars missions, with the initial launch expected as early as three years from now.

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Former Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn Takes Over UKspace

Will Whitehorn gives a pat on the back to Richard Branson as he greets Virgin Galactic ticketholders during the Oshkosh air show in 2009. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

DIDCOT, England (UKspace PR) – Space industry pioneer and entrepreneur, Will Whitehorn, today takes over from Andy Green as President of UKspace, the trade association which represents the UK space industry.

Will, who was formerly President of Virgin Galactic, played a central role in the development and concept of commercial spaceflight, and now holds several non-executive roles at companies including the Royal Air Force, Good Energy PLC, Stagecoach Group PLC, AAC Clyde Space and Scottish Event Campus Ltd. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society. He was also awarded the 2010 Geoffrey Pardoe RAeS Space Award for services to the space industry.

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15 Years Ago Today….

Mike Melvill stands atop SpaceShipOne after a suborbital flight on Sept. 29, 2004. (Credit: RenegadeAven)

Fifteen years ago today on Sept. 29, 2004, Mike Melvill lit SpaceShipOne’s hybrid engine in the skies over the Mojave Desert and flew to an altitude of 102.93 km (337,697 ft) before gliding back to a landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

It was Melvill’s second space flight in the rocket plane that Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites built. And it was the first of two flights required for to win the $10 Ansari X Prize for the first privately-built crewed spacecraft to reach space twice within two weeks.

Melvill didn’t have an entirely smooth flight. The spacecraft rolled 29 times during ascent before he was able to bring the ship under control.

Melvill admitted in 2014 there was an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that he would shut off the engine if the vehicle started rolling. But, he and Rutan were not sure it was a good idea to shut off the engine.

Melvill added that as a shareholder in Scaled Composites, he didn’t want to risk not winning the $10 million prize, which was set to expire in three months at the end of 2004.

Five days after Melvill’s hair-raising flight, Brian Binnie piloted SpaceShipOne on a trouble-free flight tin win the Ansari X Prize. Binnie flew to 112.014 km (367,454 ft), breaking the X-15’s record of 107.96 km (354,200 ft) set in 1963.

It was SpaceShipOne’s final flight. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who spent $28 million backing Rutan’s entry in the competition, decided to retire the spacecraft. He accepted an offer to donate it to the Smithsonian Institution. SpaceShipOne hangs in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

Allen licensed the technology to Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Scaled Composites and Virgin embarked on building the much larger SpaceShipTwo vehicle to fly tourists into space. Commercial flights are scheduled to begin next year.

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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Blue Origin Plans 2 More New Shepard Flights Before Flying People

Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable, suborbital rocket. (Credits: Blue Origin)

CNBC reports that Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin plans two more flight tests of the reusable New Shepard booster and capsule before flying people on suborbital flights. The additional tests could delay the first human flight into next year.

CEO Bob Smith has talked about the first crewed flight of New Shepard happening as early as the end of 2018 – but that goal has steadily been pushed back. Smith, in an interview with CNBC on Tuesday, explained why Blue Origin has delayed the first crewed flight and continued to test.

“It’s really the robustness of our entire system. It’s not one individual thing that’s driving [these delays],” Smith said. “It’s us being cautious and thorough with the total systems we need to verify.”

He noted that Blue Origin has been pushing the limits of its software and hardware, as well as testing its BE-3 rocket engine for extreme and unexpected situations.

Blue Origin has filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission to conduct the 12th New Shepard launch no earlier than Nov. 1.

New Shepard consists of a reusable booster and capsule. The capsule lands by parachute while the booster touches down using landing legs.

Blue Origin has recovered the capsules and boosters on 10 of the 11 flights. On one flight, the booster crashed while the capsule landed safely.

The company has not announced when it will begin to sell tickets and what price it will charge. Tickets aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, which expects to begin commercial suborbital flights next year, cost $250,000. Virgin Founder Richard Branson plans to be aboard the first commercial flight.

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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Cornwall Council’s Cabinet Approves Spaceport Expenditures

Spaceport Cornwall got a boost on Wednesday as the Cornwall Council’s Cabinet narrowly approved the expenditure of £12 million ($14.79 million) to support Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit launch company.

The 6-4 vote sends the proposal to the full Cornwall Council for a vote at its next meeting on Nov. 26. The contribution is part of a £22.5 million ($28.1 million) program for upgrades to the Cornwall Airport Newquay that also includes:

  • UK Space Agency: £7.5m ($9.68 million)
  • Virgin Orbit: £2.5m ($3.1 million)
  • Cornwall & Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership: £500,000 ($616,295)

Virgin Orbit will use a Boeing 747 to air launch satellites using its LauncherOne booster. The company is planning to conduct its first test launch within the next two months.

According to a staff report prepared for the Cabinet, the funds would allow the airport to acquire a spaceport license, make improvements that will allow it to accommodate wide-body aircraft, accelerate progress on its Aerohub Enterprise Zone, and add value to its business park.

“Spaceport Cornwall is an opportunity for Cornwall to create high value jobs in a fast-growing sector that is worth £14.8bn in the UK,” the report stated. “The initial Spaceport project will create 150 direct jobs by 2025, which are 2.6 times more productive than the national average. This will add £200m [$249.5 million] Gross Value Added (GVA) to the economy and will act as a catalyst for wider growth in associated sectors which use space derived data and applications.

“Specifically, Spaceport Cornwall will provide sovereign launch capability for small scale satellites and see a ‘pathfinder’ launch delivered by 2021,” the document added. “There are no plans to develop human space flight as part of the Spaceport Cornwall.”

Cornwall Council Cabinet to Vote on $14.8 Million for Spaceport

CORNWALL, UK ( Cornwall & Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership PR) — Business and space industry leaders are backing plans to create the UK’s first horizontal launch spaceport in Cornwall.

Spaceport Cornwall would use planes rather than vertical take-off rockets to put satellites into space from Cornwall Airport Newquay as early as next year, in partnership with California-based launch company Virgin Orbit.

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Virgin Galactic-Social Capital Hedosophia Deal Goes Further

A view from inside the cockpit. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

At a meeting on Monday, shareholders of Social Capital Hedosophia (SCH) gave approval to the public company to move forward with an $808 million merger deal with Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

“Holders of 66,333,089 of the Company’s ordinary shares, which represents 76.9% of the ordinary shares outstanding and entitled to vote as of the record date of August 8, 2019, were represented in person or by proxy,” Social Capital said in a document filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

The shareholders approved two resolutions. The first extends the date for completing the merger from Sept. 18 to Dec. 18, 2019.

The second resolution “extends the date on which the Trustee must liquidate the trust account established in connection with the Company’s initial public offering” if the SCH and Virgin Galactic do not complete the merger by Dec. 18.

Under terms of the deal, SCH would own up to approximately 49% of the combined space tourism company, which would be publicly traded. SCH founder Chamath Palihapitiya would become chairman of the board.

For more details about the deal, read the announcement here.

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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