Knipfing’s Notes: Troubles in Space(port)February 2nd, 2013 at 10:30 am by Dick Knipfing under Knipfings Notes, News
Just when Virgin Galactic got a rocket boost early last week toward something it’s been demanding for a long time, the space flight company started the countdown on a new demand.
Sir Richard Branson’s company has been insisting that the New Mexico legislature pass a law limiting liability for spacecraft manufacturers and parts suppliers. Virgin Galactic already has liability protection but says the expanded law is needed to attract *other out-of-this world firms to Spaceport America in the Southern New Mexico desert. For a lot of reasons, Branson doesn’t want to be an orphan down there. Other states seeking to get into the space flight business have already passed liability exemption laws. The implied threat has been that if New Mexico doesn’t, Virgin Galactic will go elsewhere.
So, last Monday, a state senate committee unanimously okayed the bill Branson wants. The full senate unanimously passed it and sent it to the House on Thursday. Okay. That should make Virgin happy. Right? Wrong.
The same day the committee approved the bill, the company announced a new gripe. It’s now stewing about paying its million dollar a year spaceport rent which started January 15th. Virgin claims the state has not yet done everything that it promised to do at the site. The company’s public statement did not go into detail about the alleged deficiencies. But it warned that if Virgin is not satisfied by March 31st, it “may either stop paying rent, pay reduced rent or give notice to terminate” its lease.
There. They said it: “terminate the lease.” Three words calculated to send shivers down the spine of state lawmakers, officials and taxpayers and spark hope in the hearts of other states which would love to steal Virgin Galactic away. Florida is already pushing hard to get into the commercial space business. The website “Florida Today” posted an article the day after the new Virgin Galactic demand, under a headline that fairly chortled, “Virgin Galactic Shuns Binding Lease at New Mexico Spaceport“.
Christine Anderson, Executive Director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, says the latest Virgin demand/threat has no basis. She says that under the lease the firm signed, the spaceport has met required standards and the rent is due. Even so, Virgin seems to believe if its demands are not met, it an opt out of the deal. If they can, they have us in a very tight spot. New Mexico has already put $209 million into Spaceport America. Sir Richard and his executives know we have no viable alternative to them. Is their latest demand a bluff and are there more demands to come?
Meanwhile that big, beautiful monument to the future sits idle in the desert. If you go to the spaceport website (spaceportamerica.com) and go to the header “Happenings” you’ll find pretty much nothing is happening. The latest “happening” is a November posting about the first FAA licensed vehicle launch October 6th. Other developments may be going on behind the scenes, but the website gives no hint of that.
In December, over California (another state with its eye on the commercial space flight business), Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo carried out its first successful glide test with rocket motors installed. At least two more glide tests are needed before the first powered flight of the craft designed to carry tourists into space at $200k a pop. Sir Richard has said he and his children will be on that first passenger flight which he and the company have often indicated should be ready to go late this year. But there’s still nothing definite. The timetable, pardon the pun, sounds like it’s still very much up in the air.
That first FAA licensed launch from the spaceport last October was a vertical rocket carrying a scientific payload. The spaceport newsletter says that shortly lift off, the rocket approached its safety limits and the flight was automatically terminated. The recovery system worked and the payload came “safely and gently back to earth”. Let’s hope that’s not a metaphor for the spaceport itself. The spaceport has launched, but if it has to be terminated, there’s no recovery system in the galaxy that can bring it safely and gently back to earth.