Soaring 50 miles above the Earth’s surface was an exhilarating moment for Richard Branson, who became the first billionaire to launch to the edge of space and eventually saw his decades-long continuation of suborbital flights. in his reach.
A crowd of 500 gathered at Spaceport America in July to witness the historic flight, including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and former Gov. Bill Richardson, who had struck a handshake deal with Branson 15 years earlier to create this New Mexico tourism space hub.
Onlookers, some of whom were celebrities, were jubilant to see Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic, and his crew pull off a test flight after years of trouble. And Branson was clearly thrilled to outdo rival Jeff Bezos, who planned his own suborbital flight nine days later.
But the triumph will be short-lived.
There have been reports of a deviation from the path of the spacecraft after it veered away from the mothership that carried it to 50,000 feet above sea level. This led to a month-long flight standstill in September before the company announced in mid-October that it would postpone commercial passenger service until the fourth quarter of 2022, citing the need to improve performance. flight and remedy a material defect in the spacecraft.
The news caused Virgin shares to fall.
Virgin’s latest issues – and a further delay – challenge prospects for the spaceport, whose fortunes are to some extent tied to the company and its success in establishing space tourism at this remote resort. near Truth or Consequences. The spaceport, in fact, was built primarily to accommodate Virgin.
Scott McLaughlin, chief executive of the spaceport, said there was no cause for concern as long as Virgin continued to pay $ 5.5 million in annual fees.
“So this planned flight downtime does not necessarily have a direct impact on Spaceport America’s financial condition,” McLaughlin said.
Even if Virgin’s commercial flights don’t take off for a few years, the impacts will be felt more in the local economy, where companies have been waiting for the boost that space tourism will bring, he said.
“Once Virgin Galactic hits space on a regular basis, there will be tourists and other customers staying in hotels and spending money in Las Cruces, Truth or Consequences and, ideally, all around New- Mexico, ”McLaughlin said.
Search for other tenants
The governor and other heads of state also wanted Virgin to launch scheduled passenger flights to justify the massive investment of public funds in the creation of the spaceport.
The state paid about two-thirds of the $ 200 million and more in construction costs, and the rest was covered by a gross revenue tax approved by Sierra and Doña Ana counties.
However, State Representative Rebecca Dow, a Republican from Truth or Consequences, downplayed Virgin’s importance to the spaceport and the region’s economy.
“Virgin has been an anchor tenant, but they’re not the only tenant,” said Dow, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor in 2022. “Space tourism is one of the many things that are happening. To [the] spaceport. “
New Mexico should tap into the aerospace industry, including for this resort, and not worry too much about a single company, she said, adding that the state was fortunate to be a leader. aerospace industry.
“And [the] Spaceport has a role to play, with or without Virgin, ”said Dow.
McLaughlin said Virgin was the mainstay, providing the bulk of the income.
But, like Dow, he said the spaceport needs to diversify and not rely too much on Virgin.
“We are always working to find new clients and tenants,” McLaughlin said. “We are particularly focused on tenants who will create full-time jobs at the spaceport.”
This year, AeroVironment, a military contractor that produces drones, brought two new programs to the spaceport, he said.
One of AeroVironment’s projects is an unmanned glider that acts like a giant wireless transmitter in the sky.
There are two other full-time tenants, as well as intermittent users such as Boeing.
Up Aerospace has installed its own launch rail to launch rockets at an average of 71 miles in altitude to test how well various payloads, such as electronic instruments, can be carried into space. NASA is one of the company’s clients.
SpinLaunch, another tenant, uses a massive centrifuge to launch rockets up to 200,000 feet in an attempt to eliminate fuel-powered launches.
The company is close to completing its $ 38 million construction and will begin hiring in the coming months, McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin said his team was talking to rocket developers, selling them the site’s perks, such as good weather, the area’s sparse population, and access to military airspace near the White Sands Missile Range.
Military leaders have agreed to let the spaceport use White Sands’ 6,000 square miles of restricted airspace, giving it a clear path for launch.
With normal airspace regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, the spaceport would have to ask the agency to reroute or postpone commercial flights so that they do not cross the launch paths of spacecraft.
Virgin meets turbulence
At this point, Virgin has barely taken advantage of military airspace and other perks.
After a series of delays, Virgin launched the first successful test flight from spaceport in May, followed by the Branson flight in July which took the crew to around 53 miles above sea level.
Zooming into an area of weightlessness and a dizzying height where Branson could contemplate the blue curvature of the Earth was deemed daring by some and reckless by others.
The original plan called for another test flight before Branson made his suborbital stay, but then learned that Bezos planned to take his spacecraft to the outskirts of space on July 20. Branson quickly scheduled a flight for July 11.
Bezos has been widely mocked on social media for donning a cowboy hat for the flight and for the phallic shape of his New Shepard spacecraft.
Despite these quirks – or maybe because of them – Bezos eclipsed Branson.
It followed up with a second flight carrying William Shatner, 90, who played Captain James T. Kirk in the original Star Trek series.
Both flights went off without a hitch.
Branson’s robbery was another matter. The warning lights came on when the spacecraft deviated from its course and, at one point, veered into unauthorized airspace.
In early September, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded Virgin while it investigated the incident. He lifted the suspension several weeks later after accepting assurances from Virgin that the problems had been corrected.
Then, in mid-October, Virgin announced that it would postpone paid commercial flights until the fourth quarter of 2022; he had planned to launch them in the third quarter.
Although the delay is only a few months, the underlying mechanical issues are yet another reason to make investors uncomfortable with a company that started trading in shares in 2019 to build capital.
After the reported delay in paid passenger travel, Virgin’s stock quickly fell to around $ 20 per share, from $ 24. Shares have since fallen further, closing the week below $ 19.
Virgin said more time was needed for an “improvement program” to improve the flight performance of its space vehicles.
He also said that a laboratory test had detected “a possible reduction in the strength margins of certain materials used to modify specific joints.”
In other words, the robustness of parts of the mothership and spacecraft was in question.
The dismissal of Virgin chief test pilot Mark “Forger” Stucky, who complained on social media about losing his job for criticizing the company in a book by New Yorker the writer Nicolas Schmidle. Stucky recently went to work for Bezos’ Blue Origin.
Virgin continues to struggle financially with little income due to the discontinuation of commercial flights. It recorded a total of $ 224 million in net losses in the first two quarters of 2021, an improvement from the $ 449 million in net losses for the same period in 2020 but still significant.
About 600 wealthy aspiring astronauts paid up to $ 250,000 per ticket. And Virgin has raised prices to $ 450,000 each way. So far, it hasn’t stopped the bleeding.
Virgin hopes to eventually launch 400 suborbital flights a year at the spaceport, but that seems like a distant goal.
McLaughlin said he hopes the company can meet its current challenges. Virgin’s plans to expand its fleet to two motherships and multiple spacecraft would benefit the spaceport.
He is also convinced that the spaceport could resist separation from Virgin if it ever came to this.
“If Virgin Galactic were no longer a customer, we would work hard to find a new tenant for the Gateway to Space hangar,” McLaughlin said, referring to the building that houses Virgin. “The Gateway to Space is an amazing facility, and we think we would find another tenant. “