Virgin Galactic: Bumpy Past, Smoother Future



VSS Unity First Powered Flight, April 5, 2018

Maximilian Looft

Being an astronaut is something many of us have aspired to be, and even if being a full-time astronaut doesn’t sound appealing, being in space sure does. Virgin Galactic, which operates out of Spaceport America in Truth or Consequences, N.M., knows this.

Virgin Galactic’s goal is to send everyday people into space, with no years of training required. Virgin Galactic is similar to SpaceX for its ambition to accomplish things in space, but instead of sending the world’s most powerful rockets into space, like Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy, Virgin Galactic’s goal is to send people.

Instead of a rocket, Virgin Galactic plans to send people to space in a jet. SpaceShipTwo, a jet-like plane with enough seats for eight people, is carried up to an altitude of 50,000 feet by its mothership, WhiteNightTwo. Only eight seconds after SpaceShipTwo is released, it reaches supersonic speed.

Of course, riding this powerful jet into space isn’t exactly cheap — the price of a ticket is currently $250,000. But the price will decrease as more space tourism sites become available all over the world in the not so distant future.

Other companies are also investing in the idea of space tourism, such as Blue Origin and SpaceX, which could possibly result in other spaceport locations in the United States, but Virgin Galactic is still the main force in space tourism as of now.

But great ideas like sending people into space haven’t been easy over the years, with a small team of only 21 people stationed at New Mexico’s Spaceport. But in August 2017, that number was raised to 32. Not only that, but approximately 85 employees from Mojave, Calif., will be relocated to New Mexico by the end of 2018 in response to promises from Bill Gutman, vice president of Spaceport America, that commercial flights will soon start.

This promise was made a little more credible when, on April 5, the company made its first successful rocket-powered flight for the first time in four years, with their newer VSS Unity.

VSS Unity First Powered Flight:

But even with the successful launch of the VSS Unity, this promise feels empty to many people due to Virgin Galactic’s many past setbacks. For more than a decade now, ever since Virgin Galactic received support from then-Governor Bill Richardson — and about $220 million in funding for the spaceport — there have been promises every year that our dreams of soaring into space were just around the corner, only to be delayed once more.

Virgin Galactic’s worst setback was on Oct., 31, 2014, when the VSS Enterprise crashed as a new hybrid rocket engine, the RocketMotorTwo (RM2), was being tested. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation revealed that the co-pilot unlocked the feathering system too early, resulting in the vehicle’s violently breaking apart mid-flight.

The feathering system was meant to angle the wings at 90 degrees to create drag when re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. However, this was a test flight within the Earth’s atmosphere, and the speed at which SpaceShipTwo was going caused the force to hit the ship like a truck, collapsing in on itself. Co-pilot Michael Alsbury died in the crash, and pilot Peter Siebold survived with serious injuries.

This incident is the main reason for Virgin Galactic’s setbacks, and they want to make sure that it never happens again. In an interview with NMPolitics, a nonpartisan organization devoted to a “fair exploration of politics and government,” Peter Nickolenko, Virgin Galactic’s director of spaceline engineering, said, “We intend this to be a spaceline for Earth – so, just as the airlines now, we want to be very safe … and we need to deliver the best experience for our customers.” He insisted that even though people are growing impatient, safety is still their number-one priority.

But the problem is, people really are impatient. Some, such as George Muñoz, a state senator from Gallup, are very opposed to the idea of a poor state dumping so much money into a spaceport. He even sponsored legislation to sell Spaceport America, which is owned by the state, but it failed.

Virgin Galactic asserts that it is committed to New Mexico, both to strengthen its economy and to take advantage of its geography: The Spaceport is located near White Sands Missile Range, which is a no-fly zone, and the high altitude makes the objective of getting into space easier.

The company’s promise of creating a better economy for New Mexico is still up for debate. Although they still haven’t created those 5,000 promised jobs, in a slideshow called “Economic Impact,” shown at a forum at the spaceport with journalists and economists in April 2017, the company claimed that the spaceport was indeed generating money, and that in 2016 it made a $20.8 million impact on the state’s economy.

But according to some economists interviewed by Heath Haussamen of NMPolitics, those numbers aren’t reliable. A problem is that the analysis counts public spending invested in the project as economic impact, including the $2.2 million that Sierra and Doña Ana counties invested into STEM education and spaceport construction, which was funded through a tax increase.

But Jim Peach, an NMSU economics professor who was invited to the forum, said he was actually surprised by what he heard. The numbers included how many hotel rooms were booked for the Spaceport America Cup held that June, where college students from all around the country come to take part in a rocket-launching competition, but not how many nights people stayed and how much they spent each day. Not only that, but the spaceport wasn’t measuring how much the tax-supported STEM education was assisting grade-school students. So, Peach believes that the economic impact made by Spaceport America is actually much greater than the claimed $20.8 million.

How much the Spaceport is benefiting the economy, or hindering it, is still debated among economists and politicians in New Mexico. But that’s not the only thing that has the spaceport in the spotlight: It’s also its secrecy.

Spaceport America has been on the quiet side about who they lease their spaces to, as well as their rent and fees. For its investigation on the Spaceport, NMPolitics requested documents from Spaceport Authority, but information on lease agreements with other aerospace companies was blacked out, including the rent and fees.

Many people, including Peter St. Cyr, executive director of the N.M. Foundation for Open Government, point out that not only does this violate New Mexico’s transparency laws, but it is unfair to people who paid taxes for the spaceport to be built. “Taxpayers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the development of Spaceport America and are entitled to complete transparency and access to public records,” St. Cyr said in an interview with NMPolitics.

In response, Spaceport America’s general counsel, Melissa Kemper Force, cited the New Mexico Supreme Court Rule of Evidence, claiming that blacking out lease agreements and protecting trade secrets is indeed justified.

But Virgin Galactic’s main reason for keeping such secrets is competitiveness. The space industry is growing, and it’s growing fast. Some aerospace companies may want the amount they’re paying and what they’re doing at the spaceport to be kept secret, and releasing that kind of information could reduce the chances of other companies partnering with them, says New Mexico Spaceport Authority CEO Dan Hicks.

Another state that keeps rent fees secret is Florida. Dale Ketcham, Space Florida’s chief of strategic alliances, says that rent payments might provide clues to rival space companies as to what a company is doing, and it’s vital to not let competitors know what a company is currently working on and how.

But there are still more arguments, and more counter-arguments, and it all continues back and forth whether secrecy is needed or not. And while we still argue whether Spaceport America should be more open to the public, and about how it’s affecting the economy, there’s still the big question: Is Spaceport America taking flight? There may be promises that people will be flying into space by the end of 2018, but the same was said for many other years as well.

Some people are certain that Virgin Galactic will never fulfill its promises, and others are absolutely sure that it will. Many are just hopeful they can bring about a better future, where you yourself can go up into the heavens and gaze back down at Earth, realizing the scope of it and the universe, a scope of how small we are, but also the scale of what we are doing to our planet.

Edgar D. Mitchell, an Apollo 14 astronaut, puts it into words perfectly: “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it … From out there on the moon, international politics looks so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of their neck, and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that you son of a bitch.’”