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.