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The View from Here

Spaceport needs reliable partners


This article has been updated to clarify that Virgin Galactic has flown seven commercial flights plus five other missions to space from Spaceport America. It also corrects an error in which the column originally stated that "all 73" Virgin Galactic employees in New Mexico had been let go: According to the company, over 200 employees in the state remain on the job. 

Expectations were sky high in 2005 when British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson inked a 20-year lease on a new spaceport that had yet to be built in southern New Mexico.

The lease called for Virgin Galactic to pay $1 million a year for the first five years, with payments after that dependent on the company’s success in developing an industry for space tourism.

There was no reason to believe that the venture would not be a huge success. Virgin Galactic reported that 38,000 people from 126 countries had already registered for the opportunity to blast off into suborbital space. Up to 100 so-called Founders ponied up the full $200,000 cost to be first in line.  

“Experts predict that thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars of private investment will be created in the next 20 years,” then-Economic Development Secretary Rick Homans said at the time.

They unveiled a spiffy new logo for the occasion. What they did not unveil, and still haven’t, is a spacecraft that can safely and reliably blast passengers into space on a routine basis. Virgin Galactic has made a grand total of seven commercial flights since then (plus five other missions), the last coming earlier this month. 

Last November, Virgin Galactic fired 73 of its employees in New Mexico. They ignored questions from Source New Mexico as to how those positions were selected and if there was any compensation package offered.

In a letter to the displaced workers, CEO Michael Colglazier blames the layoffs on “uncertainty in the capital markets” and “geopolitical unrest.” There is no mention of the fatal test flight in October 2014 that claimed the life of copilot Michael Alsbury and significantly delayed plans to begin commercial launches.

Colglazier went so far as to claim that the 19-year effort at Spaceport America had “demonstrated the efficiency” of Virgin Galactic’s system. Seven flights in 19 years is efficient?

The plan now is to shift operations to Arizona, where the next Delta Class spaceship is being designed.

“The new Delta class of spaceship will be wonderful,” Branson gushed to Source News Mexico. “It will be like building aeroplanes, so we can build one after another and in time start bringing the prices down and enabling more people to go into space.”

The plan now is to begin test flights sometime next year and to begin commercial service a year later. But we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Branson boldly predicted during the 2005 press conference that flights from Spaceport America would begin in 2008. When that timeline came and went he continued promising that the first launch was right around the corner. He didn’t stop until the fatal crash that killed Alsbury. The first crewed flight didn’t happen until 2021.

I’m not suggesting that the state should give up on Branson, whose current lease runs through 2033. That’s not really an option at this point. For better or worse, we’re committed. But we need new partners.

Shortly after the seventh flight by Virgin Galactic, brilliant college students from throughout the country will come to New Mexico for the annual Spaceport America Cup rocket engineering competition. Perhaps one of them will someday show the way forward.

We have a unique asset in a growing industry. But we need more reliable partners.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com

Opinion, Spaceport America, Virgin Galactic