ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Virgin Galactic commercial director Stephen Attenborough waxed philosophical as he chatted with reporters on a recent bus ride to Spaceport America, where the company would unveil the interior design that brings its Spaceport home “truly alive” and show off VMS Eve, the mothership that will take civilian customers on the first leg of their flight to space.
While Attenborough described his ultimate job as “making sure we make money,” he also talked about the “bigger purpose” that drives the company.
“If we are going to use the resources of space to sustain life on earth, we are going to have to improve access to space,” he said, echoing a theme shared by top Virgin Galactic executives. “Democratization of space if you will.”
Looking back 15 years, a site in the New Mexico desert becoming what Attenborough and Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides call the “Gateway to Space” was a definite long shot.
It was 2004 and then-New Mexico Economic Development Secretary Rick Homans had wrangled an invitation to visit Virgin Galactic headquarters in London.
His mission: pitch Sir Richard Branson’s fledgling commercial space venture on basing its operations in New Mexico.
Homans was told then-president Will Whitehorn wasn’t available. It was Alex Tai, Branson’s pilot and “projects guy,” who retrieved Homans from the waiting room and ushered him to a small room off the cafeteria.
“It felt like we were going to get blown off – in fact they told us later they only took the visit so as not to insult or embarrass us,” Homans said in a recent phone interview from Florida. “I was thinking it had been a long trip over and was going to be an even longer trip home.”
Undeterred, Homans made his sales pitch that included things we’ve heard many times: great weather for flying, the high elevation that makes the first mile to space “free,” the unique block of restricted air space, low population density and a pledge to build a spaceport. Homans also talked about the history of White Sands Missile Range, including the fact that German V-2 rockets were launched there after World War II taking the first pictures of Earth from space.
Instead of getting the brush off, Homans said, “one of the great opportunities in life opened up.”
“After about half an hour, Alex asked if we could take a break. He went upstairs and told Whitehorn – who was in the building even if unavailable – ‘you need to come down and see this.’ ”
Whitehorn joined the conversation.
Several intense hours later, Homans said, “Will looked at me and said, ‘I think this was meant to happen. This is where Virgin will call home.’ ”
‘Iconic and historic’
Far from looking like a real estate deal in the middle of the desert, Homans said the Virgin Galactic people saw it as “iconic and historic.”
“Will and Alex came to New Mexico and signed a one-page memo,” he said. That set the stage for later visits and the famous Branson-Bill Richardson handshake on what is now the site of Spaceport America. The deal was announced publicly in December 2005.
Homans, who now heads an economic development organization called the Tampa Bay Partnership in Florida, went on to be spaceport director before he was forced out by the incoming administration of Gov. Susana Martinez.
Despite the change of scenery, the one-time Albuquerque mayoral candidate and Richardson Cabinet member is as bullish as ever on the Spaceport’s economic potential, Virgin Galactic and Branson’s vision.
Homans said Branson, whom he got to know personally, trademarked the Virgin Galactic name in his 20s and “the idea of a space line had been in his head for a long time. It was a dream of his. The company really ignited when Burt Rutan won the X-Prize with the technology he developed that later became the model for Virgin’s spaceship Unity.”
Rutan and Branson joined forces to form the Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Company.
Attenborough, who once wrote that he was “rescued” from the financial investment world before joining Virgin Galactic in 2004, flew into New Mexico from London last month for the Spaceport tour.
He talked about the importance of the day’s events from an operational perspective.
“The flight today is in a configuration built for real commercial service, performing a trajectory that is the same we would do on a commercial flight. And we’re going to do it with ground equipment and telemetry we would use.”
What he was discussing was that day’s flight by the mothership Eve, which took off from the two-mile-long runway much like a commercial airliner, showed off some maneuvers as it passed by the Spaceport multiple times, ultimately climbed to over 45,000 feet and descended, landing on the same runway, again much like a commercial airliner. Throughout, its pilot remained in contact with the newly finished control room, full of monitors and personnel.
Virgin Galactic executives won’t speculate on when Eve and spaceship Unity might take off with the first paying customers – or “customer astronauts” as they refer to the approximately 600 people who have paid deposits.
“They are ambassadors for Virgin,” Attenborough said. “A community already using spaceflight for good.”
There has been clear progress, including moving Eve from the company’s Mojave location to New Mexico – along with nearly 100 employees who have already been relocated.
“We were ready to move home and have been doing that,” he said. “When Eve arrived Monday, it was a moment to remember for a lifetime.”
Unity, which will carry the customer astronauts on the last leg of their journey to space, is expected to be moved to New Mexico in the next few months.
Asked to look a decade into the future for the company and Spaceport America, Attenborough paused and said, “five spaceships, daily flights, maybe another terminal and another (competing) spaceline. Making this truly a hub of commercial space flight in the United States.”
“Competition,” he said, “will be the true measure of our success.”