A spaceship! Famous astronauts! Kate Winslet! Princess Bea! Protesters! Air conditioned portable toilets! Champagne! And Richard Branson hanging off a building!
Those were just some of the fun things at Spaceport America in New Mexico today. The only thing really lacking: Wifi and reliable cell reception.
It was a fun time in the desert as Virgin Galactic dedicated its nearly completed terminal. Branson renamed the giant building as the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space while opening a bottle of champagne and hanging down on a rope on the side of the structure. The British mogul rappelled down at the end an aerial interpretive performance by a dance troop against the hangar’s giant windows.
The invitation-only event, called Key to a New Dawn, drew a number of celebrities. Oscar winner Kate Winslet attended with her boyfriend, and Richard Branson nephew, Ned Rockinroll. The couple lunched with Princess Beatrice, fifth in line to the British throne and reputed future millionaut. The ubiquitous Buzz Aldrin was in the hangar, as was Canadian astronaut Julie Payette.
WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo, which had flown in from Mojave the day before, took off and did several flybys. There were widespread rumors of a planned drop test, but both the spacecraft and mothership landed together.
After the flight, there was a press conference inside the hangar, although Virgin Galactic dispensed with any actual press questions. Instead, there were several videos, seven speeches, and lots of soaring rhetoric. Virgin also announced plans by the Challenger Center, Space Florida, Purdue University, and the New Mexico Space Launch group to fly experiments aboard SpaceShipTwo.
VG CEO and President George Whitesides also announced the hiring of a new pilot, Keith Colmer, who is an experienced military test pilot. Whitesides said that a dozen present or past NASA astronauts applied for jobs with the company.
Gov. Susana Martinez gave a soaring speech talking about the importance of Spaceport America toward creating the types of high-tech jobs so that New Mexicans would not have to leave the state to find good jobs.
“And today, Richard, I may have to add it to my bucket list to fly into space,” she told Branson.
A handful of protesters, including one holding a sign that read “Occupy the Spaceport”, stood outside the entry road to the spaceport.