Knipfing’s Notes: Troubles in Space(port)

February 2nd, 2013 at 10:30 am by under Latest Posts

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.

Stay tuned.

 

3 Responses to “Knipfing’s Notes: Troubles in Space(port)”

  1. steve smyth says:

    this all goes back to Will Whitehorn’s dealing with US House Sub Committee prior to anything happening…the deals were shady from day one…Virgin presented to Committee RE doing all this with zero government involvement…Whitehorn had a deal in place to share the burden with NM before they left the building…and it has all been shaky since then…now, Whitehorn is long gone from Virgin with little or no fanfare for the first CEO of a civilian space company…

  2. Bob Jones says:

    So at a million per year for rent, New Mexico will have to wait 209 years to make their money back. Is this a good investment for the people?

    1. Thom Campbell says:

      Bob- that’s not quite right… the million/year is for “base rent” and there is supposedly another component to the rent based on number of flights conducted with a minimum annual guarantee to the facility… also, the spaceport has never been intended (please note… “intended”) to be a single tenant facility and they want to generate revenue from additional sources (including visitor experience for those of us without the resources to actually take a flight)… whether any of this comes to be is obviously an open question at best right now… I’m afraid the word may be out within the commercial space industry that NM is not a good place to do business and I’m hard pressed to see how that’s going to change. With additional tenants, in twenty years, the Spaceport could be one of the epicenters of an incredibly exciting industry. Without additional tenants it’ll be a boondogle curiosity in the middle of nowhere within five. It COULD be a great idea… I just don’t see the vision or drive from the state as a whole to make it happen. This is what you get in the “Land of Manana”…

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