For the past 23 years, I’ve been based near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to report on the nation’s space program. It might be time to start thinking about moving to New Mexico.
I say this because last week I visited the new spaceport under construction north of Las Cruces and east of the town of Truth Or Consequences, which the locals call T or C. (The enterprising town of Hot Springs renamed itself in the ‘50s to win the honor of hosting the debut of an NBC radio quiz show of the same name.)
Purists will point out that suborbital flight is not really space flight, since you pretty much will just dip a toe beyond atmosphere before gravity pulls you back to terra firma reality. But that doesn’t seem to matter to Virgin Galactic, which has been taking deposits for rides aboard a ship called VSS Enterprise (or one of its planned sister ships) at a cost of $200,000 per seat.
So far, the company has collected about $50 million from more than 380 customers, nearly enough bookings to carry the company through its first year of passenger service, says Virgin Galactic president George Whitesides, who formerly served as NASA administrator Charlie Boldin’s chief of staff. (Full disclosure: I worked with Whitesides during his earlier stint as executive director of the National Space Society when I edited its magazine, Ad Astra.)
The soonest passenger service will begin is late next year, but the schedule mostly depends on how test flights go. So far, the VSS Enterprise, a six-passenger, two-pilot spaceship designed and built by Burt Rutan’s team at Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif., has made one free flight, with a second glide expected in the next few weeks.
Its carrier aircraft, which releases the spaceship at an altitude of about 50,000 feet so it can fire its rocket engines while airborne, has completed 41 test flights. Many systems on the White Knight Two heavy-hauler carrier jet are identical to the spaceship’s, which the company expects will save some time in testing and safety assurance.
The vehicles are based on Scaled’s prize-winning SpaceShipOne, which clinched a $10 million prize in 2004 for becoming the first privately funded manned craft to reach suborbital altitude — about 62 miles. It made a single test flight, then flew twice within five days to win the Ansari X Prize. It now hangs at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.
The VSS Enterprise is generically known as SpaceShipTwo, the first of a series of vehicles Virgin Galactic wants for tourism, science, education, research and business flights. From suborbital hops, the company plans supersonic skips that could trim transcontinental flights to a couple of hours. Ultimately, Virgin plans orbital jumps as well.
“We plan to be in orbital travel within the next few years,” Branson tells me during an interview after the dedication of a 10,000 foot-long runway at New Mexico’s Spaceport America, where Virgin Galactic will base its U.S. operations.
Exactly how the company plans to do that should become clearer in the next few months. Branson said Virgin Galactic will make a bid in a $200 million NASA program to help develop commercial orbital space transportation, a project known as Commercial Crew Development. The agency’s solicitation was posted Monday. It’s the second phase of a $50 million program currently under way that is funding work by five firms — Sierra Nevada Corp, Boeing Co, United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin and Paragon Space Development.
“There’s about four companies that are seriously looking at (CCDev, Phase 2),” Branson says. “Two of those companies we’re in discussions with about teaming up with. Over the next month, we’re going to make a decision as to whether to team up with one of those two companies or go it alone.”
Companies have until Dec. 13 to make a proposal. NASA expects to announce contract awards by March.
Image: About 600 people — and one spaceship — attended a runway dedication ceremony at Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, N.M. on Friday, home base of aspiring spaceline Virgin Galactic. Credit: Irene Klotz for Discovery News.