The long, rocky countdown to Sunday's historic launch - Albuquerque Journal

The long, rocky countdown to Sunday’s historic launch

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Seventeen years after a long-shot sales call in London, Virgin Galactic and Spaceport America in southern New Mexico are on the verge of etching a spot in history Sunday when the first rocket-powered commercial spaceflight takes off with a full complement of crew and passengers.

Then-Gov. Bill Richardson, left, and Virgin Galactic’s Sir Richard Branson officially dedicate the Spaceport America runway in 2010. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

It’s been a long journey with plenty of turbulence. There have been skeptics, critics, legislative opposition, the Great Recession, funding issues and a tragic accident that set the project back and cost a co-pilot his life.

Despite all that, the vision shared by then-Gov. Bill Richardson and Sir Richard Branson, who sealed their deal with a famous handshake in the desert in 2005, is set to become a reality. New Mexico has built a world-class spaceport and Branson’s company has made it the base for his visionary space business. A successful flight Sunday will allow Spaceport America to officially lay claim to the “gateway to space” title and the enormous potential that comes with it.

“I feel very excited and vindicated,” Richardson said in a phone interview Thursday. “It was a gamble, but the state came through and Branson came through. My objective was to build another industry for New Mexico and I thought space tourism was a possibility, although I knew it was a long shot. A gamble. We waited a long time and it required patience. But we stuck with it.”

It hasn’t been cheap. New Mexico ponied up over $225 million to build the spaceport with more money spent on operations and additional area infrastructure. Virgin Galactic has invested well over $1 billion in the flight project.

Assuming all goes as planned and Virgin Galactic can ramp up operations, there has been no shortage of A-listers, including Tom Hanks, Katy Perry and Brad Pitt, among the hundreds of people reserving $250,000 tickets for a ride into space.

“I think our next goal should be Number One in space tourism in the U.S. and we’re going to have a lot of competition,” Richardson said. “The fight isn’t over.”

Elected support

The state’s current governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, has been an enthusiastic backer from Day One of her administration.

“New Mexico has always been a hub for exploration and the dawn of space tourism is happening right here,” she said.

“Michelle has put a lot of commitment and energy in it,” Richardson said. “I’m confident we are moving forward.”

Richardson makes a point of giving credit to three people – Rick Homans, Casey Luna and Ben Lujan – in addition to the people in Sierra and Doña Ana counties who agreed to a sales tax to help fund the project – for getting the concept off the ground. Richardson says there needs to be an emphasis on making sure “we get jobs and collateral technologies for them. They’ve been waiting patiently.”

It was Homans, who served as Richardson’s Economic Development secretary and the first executive director of the spaceport, who knocked on the door at Virgin Galactic’s London office in 2004. He didn’t have a lot of optimism and was told the top official, then-president Will Whitehorn, wasn’t available.

“It felt like we were going to get blown off – in fact, they later told us they only took the visit so as not to insult or embarrass us,” Homans said. “I was thinking it had been a long trip over and was going to be a long trip home.”

But Homans got a chance to make his pitch to Branson’s pilot and “projects guy,” who eventually went upstairs and told Whitehorn, “you need to come down and see this.” Several hours later, Homans said, “Will looked at me and said, ‘I think this was meant to happen. This is where Virgin will call home.’ ”

Not long after that meeting, Branson came to New Mexico to meet with Richardson – the two didn’t know each other before that – and they struck their history-changing bargain.

All in the details

A project like this takes more than vision. It takes a lot of nitty-gritty work and detail.

While Branson could call the shots at Virgin Galactic, Richardson needed legislative support and help from the counties surrounding the proposed spaceport site.

Armed with studies for the 2006 legislative session that said the spaceport eventually could generate $550 million to $1 billion in economic activity and create up to 4,000 jobs through related business and tourism, the administration worked to secure funding. The timing was good. Richardson was at the peak of his political power and the state was riding a budget surplus prior to the 2008 crash. One study estimated there could be more than 400 suborbital flights every year from Spaceport America.

Still, it took some convincing of reluctant lawmakers.

“What if we get involved and can’t afford it,” Sen. Joe Carraro, R-Albuquerque and member of the Legislative Finance Committee, asked during the initial debate. “What if Branson doesn’t come through or it blows up? I don’t want another deal where we’re stuck with something literally out of this world.”

“It was House Speaker Ben Lujan who helped me get the $250 million,” Richardson said of the late speaker and father of current U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján. “I told him that this was important and the way of the future.”

He also cited former Lt. Gov. Casey Luna of Belen “who always would talk to me about this. He was one of the first spaceport advocates in the state.”

Homans ran point. He recalled in an interview Thursday that, after Richardson decided to push ahead, “The governor looked at me and said, ‘Don’t screw this up, Ricky.’ ”

Richardson also had an important ally in Republican powerhouse Sen. Pete Domenici, a sometime political nemesis.

Domenici, who left the Senate in 2009 after 26 years and who died in 2017, pushed for federal legislation to help the project and publicly announced his support in a letter to Richardson.

“The new spaceport is of national significance” he said in a Journal interview. He also said he would do “everything in my power” to make sure federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, which oversees nearby White Sands Missile Range, cooperate with the state.

Legislators over the years were reluctant to appropriate funding for operations as the projected date for first flights kept moving back. While the spaceport attracted other tenants and Virgin Galactic upped its rent payments, money was tight. At one point, it was being used as the venue for photo wedding shoots.

There has been turnover and controversy in the executive director position and, as recently as 2015, Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, now chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, called for putting the spaceport on the auction block so New Mexico taxpayers wouldn’t have to continue to subsidize it.

There were media questions. For example, a 2018 headline in The Atlantic read “New Mexico’s Sad Bet on Space Exploration.”

Virgin Galactic and spaceport backers had to overcome trial lawyer opposition to get two crucial pieces of legislation approved. Then-Gov. Susana Martinez signed a provision into law in April 2013 exempting spacecraft parts suppliers from liability lawsuits by passengers. That followed an earlier provision exempting spaceport operators from passenger lawsuits barring gross negligence.

Other states were scrambling to attract the fledgling space business and some companies had passed up New Mexico’s spaceport in favor of states that had extended those protections to suppliers. The legislative process took several years and Virgin Galactic at one point hinted it might abandon plans to launch its flights from New Mexico if the legislation wasn’t approved.

When Martinez signed the legislation, she said it reaffirmed the commitment New Mexicans had made to Spaceport America.

Homans credited both Martinez, a Republican, and Lujan Grisham, a Democrat.

“It took political courage for them to follow through because there has always been a lot of political risk with this project. Each one continued on and, at the end of the day, they all own this project along with Gov. Richardson.”

Tragedy

In addition to funding, land acquisition, utilities and other challenges, one of the anticipated risks to the project was a catastrophic accident.

It happened in October 2014 with the dramatic failure of a test flight by SpaceshipTwo VSS Enterprise over the California desert. The aircraft broke apart soon after it reached supersonic speeds and an altitude of 50,000 feet, the result of a series of events officials blamed on human error when co-pilot Michael Alsbury pulled a lever too early, unlocking the tail of the rocket-propelled ship. Federal investigators also found the pilots were under pressure to carry out commands in a matter of seconds while rocketing into space.

Alsbury was killed and pilot Peter Siebold severely injured after he was ejected – his survival described as something of a miracle.

Then-CEO George Whitesides, a former official at NASA who left the company in March this year, said in 2014 that, as devastating as the loss was, Virgin Galactic engineers would figure out what went wrong and how to fix it moving forward.

“Space is hard, and today was a tough day,” he said. “But we’re going to get through it.”

They did, overcoming various technical obstacles and, in December 2016, VSS Unity performed its first glide flight in Mojave, California. That was followed by its first powered flight above 50 miles in February 2017. The race to space was back on.

The company unveiled the interior of its Gateway to Space in August 2019, a few months after announcing relocation of some of its operations and work force from California to New Mexico’s Spaceport America at a celebratory event in Santa Fe with Branson and Lujan Grisham.

Virgin Galactic cleared its final regulatory hurdle for sending customers into space from New Mexico in late June this year when the Federal Aviation Administration updated the company’s license. “Today’s approval by the FAA of our full commercial launch license, in conjunction with the success of our May 22 test flight, give us confidence as we proceed toward our first fully crewed test flight this summer,” CEO Michael Colglazier said.

Just the start

New Mexico already had a space legacy that included rocket launches and a space shuttle landing at White Sands. The first photo of the planet taken from space was from a camera on a rocket launched from White Sands. Its high altitude and restricted airspace were major selling points for Homans when he knocked on the door in London.

Homans, who now works in economic development in Florida, has a personal relationship with Branson and was scheduled to spend time with him on Friday. Then, at 4:30 a.m. Sunday, he was set to be on the bus pulling out of El Encanto hotel in Las Cruces to head out to Spaceport America – “the day we dreamed about back in 2005.”

A successful flight, he said, will be cause for celebration. Then it will be time to get back to work.

“This is really the beginning of something much bigger,” Homans said. “Humans have been through the industrial revolution and the digital revolution. Now, we are on the brink of the space revolution. New Mexico is going to have to be even more aggressive and more visionary to stay out front. And that will require commitment from the political and business leadership of this state.”

“The opportunity is so big it would be foolish to let up when we’ve come this far.”

 


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