Spaceport America Plays Guessing Game as Virgin Galactic Awaits NTSB Report

The Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space building with a security fence around it. (Credit: Alex Heard)
The Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space building with a security fence around it. (Credit: Alex Heard)

The guessing game was being played again last week in New Mexico, when nobody seems to know when Virgin Galactic will begin commercial spaceflights from the state’s gleaming but little used Spaceport America.

“Our assumption is that they wouldn’t begin commercial flights with passengers until July 2016,” [Executive Director Christine] Anderson said in an interview. “That’s just an assumption. It doesn’t mean I know any more than anyone else, but it means that I had to base my budget on something.”

Well, fair enough. I guess she has to base the budget on something. It would be nice if that something was a little more realistic. A July start doesn’t appear to be so at the moment.

Reports here in Mojave indicate that Virgin Galactic is aiming for some sort of flight — most likely a non-powered drop test from SpaceShipTwo — by the end of the year. However, that schedule doesn’t seem any more credible than any of the company’s other predictions over the past 11 years.

There’s still a lot of work to do. This is the first time that Virgin Galactic is building a SpaceShipTwo; the previous one had been constructed by Scaled Composites. And the project has to compete for resources with the company’s satellite launch vehicle program, which just received an order for 39 launches and an option for 100 more for a rocket that doesn’t even exist yet.

Assuming sources are correct, the first flight tests of the second SpaceShipTwo won’t occur until sometime in 2016. That leaves almost no time to complete a proper test program in Mojave and begin commercial flights by July in New Mexico.

The other assumption is that Virgin Galactic will — as Vice President Will Pomerantz said emphatically at the Space Access Conference in April — only fly when they’re ready. If the company is serious about that, they will need to do more than the handful of powered flights they had planned — with a new nylon hybrid engine — before the first SpaceShipTwo was destroyed last Halloween.

So, it looks as if New Mexico will have to wait a bit longer for flights at the $225 million spaceport outside of Truth or Consequences. In the meantime, Virgin Galactic’s Gateway to Space — as the hangar facility is called — will continue to be a money pit.

“The ability and timing for the spaceport to achieve self-sufficiency remains uncertain,” legislative analysts wrote in a five-page briefing that detailed the challenges facing the futuristic facility.

There have been 23 vertical rocket launches to date, and revenue has covered more than half of the facility’s operating expenses for the last three fiscal years.

Those operating expenses are set to increase this fiscal year with the costs for security and firefighting services jumping to $3 million, or nearly half of the spaceport’s operating budget and triple the funds it receives from Virgin Galactic in the form of lease payments.

According to the finance committee, which is instrumental in crafting the budget each year, the security and fire staffing levels exceed state and federal requirements.

While New Mexico officials grapple with costs, Virgin Galactic is awaiting the release of a report by the National Transportation Safety Board on the SpaceShipTwo accident last October.  A source reports that document could be released by the end of the month.

The report is expected to blame pilot error on the part of Scaled Composites co-pilot Mike Alsbury, who died when the ship broke up in flight. A design flaw in the feather system is reported to be a contributing factor to the crash.

NTSB officials have said Alsbury unlocked the feather device, which is designed to deploy two tail booms during re-entry, too soon during ascent. Aerodynamic forces caused the booms to deploy, resulting in the break up of the ship.

The source said the report will recommend the deployment system be beefed up to prevent another occurrence of the event that destroyed the first SpaceShipTwo.

The changes will add weight to a ship that was already very heavy. Although tests on the spacecraft’s hybrid motor are reported to be going well, it’s not clear whether SpaceShipTwo will be able to reach the 80 km (50 mile) altitude stipulated in contracts with approximately 700 customers who have signed up for flights.

SpaceShipTwo was originally designed to carry two pilots and six passengers. However, reports indicate that the passenger capacity could be reduced to four.

  • TimR

    If the operating budget of the Spaceport is just $6M/yr, NM is being short-sighted. They need to suck it up and think long term.

  • TimR

    Doug is “…not going there!” with “Truth or Consequences”. That town was named after the long running game show. I remember it on TV but don’t recall the premise. So using Wiki: if a contestant’s answer, “the truth”, to a question was wrong, having just seconds to answer, he would suffer “the consequences”. If VG chooses to rashly answer the question of how soon they will begin commercial flights and are wrong, there will be consequences or if they rush their development to make their answer the truth, there will be consequences. Well anyway a funny analogy..

    When I passed through Mojave in November, during a chat with an engineer, I said at least 2 years and the local engineer, an insider, said probably at least 3 years. Having plenty of solitude and time to mull the question on a bicycle ride to Death Valley and up Owens Valley, I imagined the engineer was likely right and I was optimistic. The “truth” will be January 2018, imo. The snow capped New Mexico Rockies will be a beautiful site, that is, if New Mexico sticks it out.

    Belatedness is no big deal to VG. Richard Branson as owner of Virgin Group expresses love, trust, sympathy. He is a good guy but the bottom line is that he has vanilla wrapper managers and engineers from the aerospace industry that are making the calls after Richard flies off.

    Spaceport New Mexico will have to stick it out until 2018. With all the “spaceports” popping up everywhere, VG will have no problem finding other nice places to launch their passengers.

    Launcher One just added a bunch of new engineers and without proper management and QA – “too many chefs” will lead to delays, mistakes and probably 3 years will pass from today before they launch paying customers. That is likely not a big deal to VG because the vast bulk of Launcher One’s revenue will be the OneWeb Constellation and that is on a life-cycle schedule exceeding 3 years. The delays will impact the concerns of Spaceport and investors of OneWeb, not Virgin Galactic. Whether Branson and Virgin Group will go along with the delays and cost overruns is an open question but it seems they are willing to stick it out.

    Truth or Consequences.
    Truth or Consequences.

  • Douglas Messier

    After the accident the second SS2 was supposed to be completed within six months. So they’ve already set out an unrealistic goal on this once.

  • TimR

    That said a lot about the experience level and engineering knowledge of their mgmt and there should have been a mix of engineers and managers that came to that conclusion (6 mos ). Hmm, do the top managers spend enough time in Mojave? “It’s a nice place to visit…”. Issues might stem from something so simple.

  • Hemingway

    The New Mexico legislature should stop spending money and taxing us for the Spaceport America money pit.

    http://www.cfodailynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Money-Pit.jpg

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, and return to the original vision of the 1990’s when it was intended to be a multiple use facility focused on SER suborbital markets.This would actually be a good time to renegotiate the contract with so they don’t have such a strangle hold on operations at the spaceport.

  • Douglas Messier

    I’m not sure where exactly that came from. It might have been something that sounded good to the PR and marketing people in London or to Richard Branson. Anyone who looked at the state of the vehicle at the time said, “What?” They had the exterior shell, but that was the relatively easy part. All the rest of the work was what would take a lot of time.

  • Douglas Messier

    The agreements give Virgin Galactic a lot of say over how the spaceport is used as anchor tenant. I’m not sure it’s such a good thing for the New Mexico Spaceport Authority in attracting other tenants to the facility.

    Virgin is continuing to pay for a spaceport it’s not using. And I’m not sure the spaceport can be used as a regular airport. It’s too remote and ground access is so limited I doubt it would be a very good airport anyway.

  • ThisismyBOOMstick

    Minor correction… The Spaceport is 200 miles away from the New Mexico Rockies.

    Fun fact though: The San Andres mountains have the highest concentration of mountain lions of anywhere in North America.

  • mzungu

    How’s the one in Midland coming? In 2 years, right? 😛

  • Douglas Messier

    Uh….right. Renovations to hangar essentially complete. Xcor is moving a big group of its employees there at end of month. Work progressing on facilities for Orbital Outfitters, which is xcor’s spacesuit provider.

  • ThomasLMatula

    I wonder how long before the XCOR employees that don’t want to move break off and start their own firm. The intellectual environment in Midlands is a very sterile when it comes to rockets compared to Mojave.

  • ThomasLMatula

    That is because of the hunting restrictions and exotic game on the WSMR that is on their eastern slope.

  • mzungu

    For an vehicle that was announced in 2008, and was to be operational in “2 years”… I would think anything now is pretty much a “guessing game”.

  • Douglas Messier

    Lynx is in Mojave. Xcor is fulfilling obligations to midland. Of course it only promised an R&D center. virgin is fulfilling lease obligations but not flights to pay spaceports bills.

  • Paul Freeman

    Would Virgin operate their satellite/Launcher One operations from Spaceport America? If so then surely that will solve the funding issue. I’ve never heard this mentioned so I assume that isn’t being planned, I’ve only heard of the SS2 tourist flights being planned to operate from there.

  • Paul Freeman

    Also T or C has its own airport with two approx 7,000′ runways sufficient enough for many passenger jets, though the FBO isn’t of Virgin clubroom standards.