Space-tourism dream edges to­ward re­al­ity

The Tribune (SLO) - - News - BY MOR­GAN LEE

SANTA FE, N.M.

Bri­tish bil­lion­aire Richard Bran­son and his space-tourism com­pany Vir­gin Ga­lac­tic an­nounced new steps Fri­day to­ward of­fer­ing thrill rides into the low reaches of space for pay­ing pas­sen­gers, with the com­pany im­me­di­ately start­ing to move per­son­nel and space ve­hi­cles from Cal­i­for­nia to a launch and land­ing fa­cil­ity in the New Mex­ico desert.

Bran­son said Vir­gin Ga­lac­tic’s de­vel­op­ment and test­ing pro­gram has ad­vanced enough to make the move.

Vir­gin Ga­lac­tic will be shift­ing oper­a­tions to Space­port Amer­ica near the south­ern New Mex­ico town of Truth or Con­se­quences as it pre­pares to be­gin for commercial ser­vice later this year. The man­u­fac­tur­ing of the space ve­hi­cles by the com­pany’s sis­ter en­ter­prise, The Space­ship Com­pany, will re­main based in Mo­jave, Cal­i­for­nia.

“We are now ready to bring New Mex­ico a world-first, world-class space­line,” Bran­son said. “Vir­gin Ga­lac­tic is com­ing home to New Mex­ico where to­gether we will open space to change the world for good.”

In Fe­bru­ary, a new ver­sion of Vir­gin Ga­lac­tic’s winged craft SpaceShipTwo soared at three times the speed of sound to an al­ti­tude of nearly 56 miles in a test flight over South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, as a crew mem­ber eval­u­ated the pas­sen­ger ex­pe­ri­ence.

New Mex­ico of­fi­cials have ea­gerly an­tic­i­pated the ar­rival of space tourism by Vir­gin Ga­lac­tic for more than a decade. Tax­pay­ers in­vested over $200 mil­lion in Space­port Amer­ica af­ter Bran­son and then-Gov. Bill Richard­son, a Demo­crat, pitched the plan for the fa­cil­ity, with Vir­gin Ga­lac­tic as the an­chor ten­ant.

While the an­nounce­ment sig­nals the fi­nal count­down to reg­u­lar commercial ser­vice for pay­ing cus­tomers, Vir­gin Ga­lac­tic CEO Ge­orge White­sides has de­clined to say how many more test flights must be con­ducted. Bran­son has said he would like to make his first sub-or­bital flight this year as the ven­ture’s first pas­sen­ger on the 50th an­niver­sary of the Apollo 11 moon land­ing on July 20.

Space tourism has not been a com­plete nov­elty since mil­lion­aire U.S. en­gi­neer Den­nis Tito in 2001 paid $20 mil­lion to join a Rus­sian space mis­sion to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion. Bran­son’s goal has been to open up space travel to more and more peo­ple.

Hun­dreds of po­ten­tial cus­tomers have com­mit­ted as much as $250,000 up front for rides in Vir­gin’s six-pas­sen­ger rocket, which is about the size of an ex­ec­u­tive jet.

But Vir­gin Ga­lac­tic’s space­ship de­vel­op­ment has taken far longer than ex­pected and had a ma­jor set­back when the com­pany’s first ex­per­i­men­tal craft broke apart dur­ing a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot.

The en­deavor be­gan in 2004 when Bran­son an­nounced the found­ing of Vir­gin Ga­lac­tic in the heady days af­ter the flights of SpaceShipOne, the first pri­vately fi­nanced manned space­craft that made three flights into space.

The com­pany’s cur­rent space­ship doesn’t launch from the ground. It is car­ried un­der a spe­cial plane to an al­ti­tude of about 50,000 feet be­fore de­tach­ing and ig­nit­ing its rocket en­gine. The craft coasts to the top of its climb be­fore grad­u­ally de­scend­ing to earth, sta­bi­lized by unique “feath­er­ing” tech­nol­ogy in which twin tails ro­tate up­ward to in­crease drag on the way to a run­way land­ing.

Space sec­tor an­a­lyst Adam Jonas, a man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of eq­uity re­search at Mor­gan Stan­ley, said Bran­son’s ven­ture could have an out­sized im­pact in the age of so­cial me­dia on how the pub­lic vi­su­al­izes space as a do­main for sci­en­tific and commercial ex­plo­ration.

MATT YORK AP

Guests stand out­side the Space­port Amer­ica han­gar on Oct. 17, 2011, in Upham, N.M. Bil­lion­aire Richard Bran­son an­nounced Fri­day that Vir­gin Ga­lac­tic will im­me­di­ately be­gin shift­ing oper­a­tions to the space­port and spe­cial­ized run­way in the New Mex­ico desert in fi­nal prepa­ra­tions for commercial flights.

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