Space Tourism Rewind: Branson and Rutan Unveil Plans for Space Tourism Flights, New Mexico Announces Spaceport

Richard Branson and Burt Rutan watch from the ground. (Credit: Bill Deaver)

A lot can happen in 18 years.

A mother can go from holding her newborn baby in her arms to sending her child off the college for the first time. In between, the child has learned to walk and talk, endured the rigors of puberty, and spent at least 13 years in school.

In 18 years, NASA went from the final Mercury mission flown by Gordo Cooper in 1963 to launching John Young and Bob Crippen on the first space shuttle flight. During that period, the space agency flew 10 Gemini missions, landed 12 men on the moon, set new human space endurance missions on Skylab, and docked with a Soviet spacecraft in Earth orbit.

Eighteen years ago this week – Sept. 27, 2004, to be precise – Virgin Group Chairman Richard Branson and Scaled Composites Founder Burt Rutan appeared at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London to announce they would build a fleet of vehicles known as SpaceShipTwo that Virgin Galactic would use to take tourists on brief trips into suborbital space.

The ambitious scope of the plan could be seen in the numbers:

  • $100 million: investment by the Virgin Group
  • $190,000: price per seat
  • 500: passengers to be flown in first year
  • 3,000: passengers to be flown in first five years
  • 5: passengers on each flight
  • 2007-08: period when commercial flights would begin.

Virgin Galactic’s would send more people into space in the first 12 months of operation than all the world’s space programs had sent in the previous 40 plus years. People of means could become astronauts without having to join NASA and undergo years of training. Space would open up. Prices would come down as more people flew. Spaceflight would become routine.

It was astounding. It was Earth shattering. It was the future. It was also not to be.

The  6,578 days that have followed the announcement haven’t been particularly kind to Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites. Today, the numbers stand as:

  • $2 billion plus: investment to date
  • $450,000: price per seat
  • 4: flights above 50 miles (82.5 miles) (FAA boundary of space)
  • 4: passengers on each flight
  • 4: employees killed in fatal accidents
  • 4: employees hospitalized as a result of fatal accidents
  • 2: fatal accidents
  • 0: paying passengers flown
  • 0: flights above 100 km (62.1 miles) (internationally recognized boundary of space)
  • 2023: year commercial flights will begin.

How so much money and effort could be expended and lives lost to accomplish so little to date is a long, depressing story. Too long to be recounted here. Suffice to say, it involves hype, hubris, excessive optimism, immature and poorly understood technology, poor safety practices, and insufficient regulatory oversight. In the end, technology developed to win a prize before it expired at the end of 2004 proved difficult to scale up for commercial service.

Rather the recount the last 18 years, we will leave you with the press release the Virgin Group distributed on Sept. 27, 2004, that announced plans for SpaceShipTwo.

As an added bonus, we’ve including the press release from Dec. 14, 2005, in which Branson and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson announced plans for state taxpayers to spend $225 million constructing a custom-built spaceport to serve as Virgin Galactic’s home. In less than 15 months, Virgin’s plan to fly 3,000 people to space in the first five years had morphed into launching 50,000 customers in the first 10 years of operations through 2019.

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

Virgin Group Sign Deal with Paul G. Allen’s Mojave Aerospace; Licensing the Technology to Develop the World’s First Commercial Space Tourism Operator

LONDON, September 27, 2004  (Virgin Group PR) — Today, Sir Richard Branson announced that Virgin Group has entered into an agreement to license the technology to develop the world’s first privately funded spaceships dedicated to carrying commercial passengers on space flights. The technology is currently owned by a Paul Allen company called Mojave Aerospace Ventures (‘M.A.V.’) and was originally developed to fulfill Paul Allen’s vision of building the world’s first privately funded reusable space vehicle (SpaceShipOne), which will undertake its first Ansari X Prize flight later this week. The licensing deal with M.A.V. could be worth up to GBP 14 million ($21.5 million) over the next fifteen years depending on the number of spaceships built by Virgin.

SpaceShipOne, which is solely funded by Paul G. Allen, was designed by aviation legend Burt Rutan and built by his company, Scaled Composites. On June 21st Mike Melvill piloted this unique craft to a height of 100 km (62 miles) and into the history books and record books as the world’s first private manned space flight. Separately to Virgin’s agreement with M.A.V., the company has also signed a Letter of Intent to agree contract terms with Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites, to utilise the technology in building new spaceships and derivatives thereof, for the purposes of carrying paying passengers on a journey to the stars — returning to earth as astronauts two hours later.

Virgin has formed Virgin Galactic (‘V.G.’) a new company, which will become the world’s first commercial space tourism operator. It is envisaged that Virgin Galactic will open for business by the beginning of 2005 and subject to the necessary safety and regulatory approvals begin operating flights from 2007. The name was first registered and trade mark protection applied for in the mid 1990s. It is expected that around GBP 60 million ($100 million) will be invested in developing the new generation of spaceships and ground infrastructure required to operate a sub orbital space tourism experience. Over five years Virgin expects to create around 3000 astronauts and the price per seat on each flight, which will include at least three days of pre-flight training, are expected to start at around GBP 115,000 ($190,000). Virgin will reinvest the proceeds in developing a new generation of vehicles for further space ventures. To date the cheapest space tourism experiences in government built and taxpayer funded spaceships cost over $15,000,000 per seat.

As a prelude to these exciting developments Virgin is also very pleased to have agreed terms to sponsor SpaceShipOne on its historic Ansari X Prize flights later this week and in early October.

Commenting on the announcement, Virgin Galactic Founder Sir Richard Branson said: “We’ve always had a dream of developing a space tourism business and Paul Allen’s vision, combined with Burt Rutan’s technological brilliance, have brought that dream a step closer to reality. The deals with both their companies, being announced today, are just the start of what we believe will be a new era in the history of mankind, making the affordable exploration of space by human beings real. We hope to create thousands of astronauts over the next few years and bring alive their dream of seeing the majestic beauty of our planet from above, the stars in all their glory and the amazing sensation of weightlessness. The development will also allow every country in the world to have their own astronauts rather than the privileged few.”

Welcoming the deal Paul Allen added: “I backed the development of SpaceShipOne because I saw this as a great opportunity to demonstrate that space exploration could someday be within the reach of private citizens. Today’s deal with Virgin represents the next stage in the evolution of the SpaceShipOne concept, and will likely be the first of a number of deals that will utilize the technology developed during its creation. I am very happy to have Virgin and Richard Branson as sponsors of our X-Prize attempt and excited about space tourism.”

Burt Rutan, Founder of Scaled Composites, concluded: “Apart from building SpaceShipOne for Paul and then watching it fly to space on June 21st this is one of the most exciting days of my life. Our June space flight was flown with several new technologies that address both the cost and safety of manned space flight. These, combined with the lessons learned from our SpaceShipOne research program, will enable us to develop the finest suborbital operational systems possible. I am looking forward to getting started on the development program and the opportunity to work with Virgin on taking Paul Allen’s vision to the next stage.”

It is expected that Virgin Galactic will formally commence the contractual and design phase of the project after the conclusion of the Ansari X Prize flights and start construction of the first spaceship, the ‘VSS ENTERPRISE’ in 2005.

This transaction is subject to all necessary government approvals.

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

Governor Bill Richardson and Sir Richard Branson Announce Virgin Galactic Will Locate World Headquarters and Mission Control at World’s First Purpose-Built Spaceport

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.

“This is a historic day for our great state, and particularly Southern New Mexico,” said Governor Bill Richardson. “With Virgin at the controls, enthusiasts from around the world will fly to space, routinely and safely, just a few years from now. And they will be flying from the world’s first purpose-built spaceport here in New Mexico. I am excited that New Mexico will be on the ground floor of this new industry, and I know this will mean new companies, more high-wage jobs and opportunities that will move our state’s economy forward.”

New Mexico’s spaceport, will offer fledgling astronauts an experience that will be truly out of this world. Virgin Galactic also plans to create a five-star destination experience in New Mexico to accommodate customers, their families, and space enthusiasts.

Construction will begin in 2007 and should be completed by 2009/2010. Branson and Richardson confirmed that Virgin Galactic plans to inaugurate space flights out of New Mexico once construction of the spaceport is complete, and plans to send 50,000 customers to space in the first ten years of operation.

Gov. Bill Richardson and Richard Branson with SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Virgin, based in England, is one of the world’s most recognized and successful companies, with a brand that extends from airlines to trains, consumer goods, and online services. The Virgin group consists of more than 200 companies around the world with expected annual revenues of $10.7 billion in fiscal year 2005/6.

Commenting on the historic decision by the State of New Mexico to build the world’s first purpose-built spaceport for personal spaceflight, Virgin Chairman Sir Richard Branson said, “It seems like only yesterday that Virgin Galactic was a dream relying on future technologies. Today, six years later, we have had a successful X PRIZE winning prototype and are now actively engaged on design and development of our commercial space craft ‘SpaceShipTwo’ which will be an eight-astronaut vehicle. When the spaceport is built, we look forward to basing our world headquarters and U.S. operations and a fleet of up to five spaceships and a launch aircraft at the new facility, which will be the first purpose-built private spaceport that the world has ever seen.”

Customers will spend training time in simulators and light aircraft vehicles in order to assimilate to the g-forces they will encounter in space. Additionally, they will learn how to operate a “personal communications console” that will allow them to record their experience in space. The flight itself will consist of SpaceShipTwo being propelled into suborbital space by a rocket motor after it is dropped by a launch aircraft.

“This is an opportunity of a lifetime and I can’t wait to be one of the first Virgin Galactic customers into space,” stated Victoria Principal, actress/skincare expert and space enthusiast, who attended the announcement with Richardson and Branson. “With only a couple days of training, we will reach an altitude of 400,000 feet and experience weightlessness firsthand. As one of the 100 Virgin Galactic Founders I am proud and excited to be part of this revolutionary venture.”

Funding for construction of the spaceport is expected to come from a combination of state capital outlay, federal appropriations, and a local-option gross receipts tax that will be proposed to voters of southern New Mexico counties that stand to benefit from the spaceport and the resulting job growth.

Based on a study done by Futron, a well-respected aerospace industry consulting firm, the annual economic impact of the Southwest Regional Spaceport in 2020 could be in excess of $750 million in total revenues, and exceed 3,500 jobs, including all commercial space cluster space transportation services and manufacturing activities, as well as tourism-related visitor spending. This provisional, forward-looking estimate is strongly dependent on the ability of the State of New Mexico and early commercial space transportation sector entrants to attract vehicle manufacturers and key suppliers to the vicinity of the spaceport.

The majority of this economic impact would be concentrated in the vicinity of Las Cruces and Upham, with secondary impacts anticipated for Albuquerque and tourism-centric localities elsewhere in the state.

Futron estimates that the earliest economic impact of the spaceport project would come from spaceport construction, which is scheduled to begin as early as 2006, and be completed in 2008. Maximum construction impacts in 2007 are estimated to be $331 million in total revenues, and 2,460 total jobs.

New Mexico stands to gain thousands of jobs, and hundreds of millions of dollars of payroll and capital investment. A New Mexico State University study looked at construction; overall spending from suborbital and orbital activities; and research and development activities. In the first five years, the study projects spending of $1 billion, payroll of $300 million, and employment reaching 2,300 by the fifth year of operation. The agreement between New Mexico and Virgin says the state will build and then lease to Virgin Galactic customized hangar and training facilities, and the company will pay user fees for use of the spaceport, as is customary in the aerospace industry. Virgin Galactic will sign a 20-year lease.

Virgin Galactic will set up its operations headquarters, administration, marketing/sales, launch, maintenance, pilot training, and other operations critical to basing its operations here in New Mexico, creating at least 200 new jobs for New Mexicans.

Richardson praised New Mexico’s U.S. congressional delegation, including Senator Pete Domenici, Senator Jeff Bingaman, Representative Steve Pearce Representative Tom Udall, Representative Heather Wilson, New Mexico state legislators, and city and county officials from southern New Mexico for their support of the spaceport. Richardson also credited Rick Homans, Cabinet Secretary for the Economic Development Department & Chairman of the newly created New Mexico Spaceport Authority, for his leadership during the negotiations that resulted in the agreement with Virgin Galactic. Secretary Homans’ team included President and CEO of the New Mexico Economic Development Partnership, Jim Colson; Former Governor and Dean Garrey Carruthers of the College of Business Administration & Economics at New Mexico State University; and Dr. Bill Gutman, NMSU, Physical Sciences Laboratory.

“When Burt Rutan and SpaceShipOne won the X PRIZE in October 2004, we knew the new space industry had arrived,” said Secretary Rick Homans. “And when Sir Richard Branson announced that Virgin would use that same technology to fly paying passengers into space, we realized that our most important job was to convince Virgin Galactic to come to New Mexico and launch the personal spaceflight industry. This announcement is a convergence of dreams and we are proud that Virgin will be New Mexico’s anchor tenant at the world’s most exciting space tourism location.”

Homans traveled twice to Virgin headquarters in London, and hosted Virgin Galactic officials several times in New Mexico, most recently at the successful “Countdown to the X PRIZE CUP” in Las Cruces, New Mexico in October 2005.

Will Whitehorn, President of Virgin Galactic, explained the attractions of New Mexico:

“New Mexico has worked hard to bring us to their exciting new spaceport facility. The State has several factors that make it an ideal operations base: climate, free airspace, low population density, high altitude, and stunning scenery. Our team was highly impressed by the professionalism and the competitive pitch the state and its advisors developed. We look forward to working together to make the “Final Frontier” a reality for tens of thousands of pioneering space tourists. Our activities will prove the commercial viability and excellent safety technology behind private personal spaceflight and give birth to a new industry in New Mexico.”

Description of Virgin Galactic:

Sir Richard Branson’s interest in space began when he witnessed the Apollo moon landings as a teenager. The name Virgin Galactic was first registered in March 1999 as Virgin began discussions with several fledgling private space ventures with a view to investment in the sector.

However, it was to be another three years before circumstances brought Virgin closer to SpaceShipOne and the X-Prize. Scaled Composites were in the process of constructing the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer. This was an aircraft successfully piloted non stop around the world by Steve Fossett in March 2005. Virgin saw SpaceShipOne under construction and forged an agreement with the visionary, Paul Allen, to license the technology should the craft successfully win the X-Prize.

A design for SpaceShipTwo is now in its final planning stages and construction of the commercial prototype is expected to commence in 2006 and be flying by 2008. It is expected that five SpaceShipTwo’s and two White Knight Two carrier aircrafts will be built, in order to allow 50,000 customers to experience personal spaceflight over a ten year period up to 2019.

Currently, there are 40,000 registrations from individuals from 120 countries. Virgin has an unprecedented record of innovation, past performance in implementing new commercial ventures, demonstrated insightful leadership, and sound business planning.

History of New Mexico’s spaceport:

New Mexico’s spaceport has been in the planning stages for 15 years. The spaceport, located in Sierra County, about 45 miles northeast of Las Cruces, and 25 miles southeast of Truth or Consequence is approximately 27 square miles of open, generally level, range land with an average elevation of 4700 feet. The complete lack of conflicting operations, facilities, and environmental constraints provides a unique opportunity to design and develop a purpose-built launch complex that meets the needs of spaceport customers.

Since the “Father of Modern Rocketry” Robert Goddard built his prototypes in Roswell in the 1930s, New Mexico has been at the epicenter of space exploration technology. In 1946, New Mexico became the official birthplace of space in the United States when Wernher von Braun successfully launched the V2- Rocket into space from White Sands Missile Range.

Then in 1961 ENOS, a chimpanzee trained at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo New Mexico, was the first chimp launched into orbit. He successfully completed two orbits around the Earth.

In 1978 Space Shuttle astronaut training began at Northrup Strip at White Sands and NASA astronauts landed the Space Shuttle Orbiter Columbia at WSMR in 1982. New Mexico was announced as the host of the X PRIZE CUP annual spaceflight xhibition in 2004, winning over Florida, California and Oklahoma. In October 2005, the “Countdown to the X PRIZE CUP” event, attracting over 15,000 people, was held in Las Cruces, New Mexico.