Democratize space? Not oppressive Virgin Galactic - Albuquerque Journal

Democratize space? Not oppressive Virgin Galactic

Members of the media begin to assemble at New Mexico’s Spaceport America early on July 11 to observe Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson take his first spaceflight. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

The Albuquerque Journal recently published spectacular photos of Sir Richard Branson’s historic flight to space from Spaceport America in southern New Mexico.

Journal photographer Roberto E. Rosales skillfully captured everything, using a telephoto lens to snap iconic photos of Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, as he waved to the crowd from the Land Rover that drove him across the tarmac to board the VSS Unity spaceship. He also photographed the moment that the Unity separated in midair from the mothership VMS Eve and fired its rockets to shoot into suborbit. And he captured the unbridled joy of the Unity flight team back on the tarmac waving bottles of Champagne.

I was right there on site with our photographer for every minute of that historic event to convey through writing all the excitement and hoopla that surrounds such a first-ever accomplishment.

But I couldn’t do it.

Why? Because I saw none of it.

Virgin Galactic, a company that’s promised to democratize space, corraled the media throughout the event and turned this historic opportunity for public discovery and education into a marketing campaign that fed carefully scripted images and thoughts to the public. It restricted the press’ access to our state’s own elected officials and industry leaders, as well as numerous other dignitaries and professionals who aren’t their employees. And they did all that at Spaceport America – a state-of-the-art facility that New Mexico taxpayers have paid more than $225 million to build and operate.

Journal reporter Kevin Robinson-Avila takes notes during a news conference after the successful Virgin Galactic launch from New Mexico on July 11 while surrounded by students and others who attended the event. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

From the moment local, national and international reporters descended from the caravan of buses that carried us from Las Cruces to the spaceport, we were herded into a specially designated area separated from almost everything. A dividing gate kept us from the visitors’ area, where hundreds of invited guests excitedly co-mingled throughout the morning.

Among them were dozens of future space tourists who each paid $250,000 for seats on upcoming Unity flights. Many local and state officials were there, as were space industry movers and shakers from New Mexico and beyond. Students from Las Cruces Public Schools were also bused in to share in the historic event.

But reporters were kept from interviewing them. From the start, every journalist who tried to cross into the guest space was inexplicably ushered back to the press area by security guards hired by Virgin Galactic.

When I personally asked one guard for permission to interview people, he declined and physically escorted me back to the press area.

As the morning wore on, frustration grew in the press tent.

“It’s a photographer’s worst nightmare,” one photojournalist muttered.

Another journalist – an Italian broadcast reporter who flew in from Europe with his cameraman – turned to me as we both leaned on the dividing gate. “I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I need to be over there with the guests to interview them.”

As a local reporter, I knew many of the New Mexico guests roaming in the distance. After yelling to them from across the dividing gate, a few graciously came over to the press area for interviews.

In addition, Journal editors in Albuquerque phoned Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s media representatives, who, in turn, arranged for the governor to come talk with reporters.

But Virgin Galactic tried to block those efforts. Following the interview with Lujan Grisham, for example, one guard attempted to impede a guest from crossing over. He told me that, after seeing the governor come to the press tent, his “higher ups” had instructed security “to put a stop to it.”

Wait … what? Weren’t I and all those other reporters from around the world invited there to cover this historic event?

For reporters, that means interviewing everyone you can to capture thoughts and emotions, from school kids to the governor, from future Unity passengers to local officials and space enthusiasts.

That’s what makes an event come alive for readers.

Fortunately, Journal photographer Rosales was savvy enough to position himself in key spots at critical moments to shoot the action. And because of his long lens, he could see much of what I couldn’t.

As for me, I wrote a news story that described the day’s events with quotes from the few people I managed to interview.

But all on site independent coverage of the event was eclipsed by the company’s live-streaming feed – a Disney-like infomercial that aired across the globe telling people only what the company wanted them to see and hear.

And that’s a problem.

On the extreme side, if something had gone wrong, we’d only know what the company was willing to tell us, and cloaked in whatever spin it chose to apply.

On a less dramatic scale, it showed total lack of transparency. Rather than democratize space, it wrapped Virgin Galactic’s emerging space tourism business into the elite bubble many believe it is – a joy ride for the wealthy with company-managed sound bites.

Perhaps more important, deliberately caging up the press is an assault on democratic principles. While a private company has every right to manage its own events and leased space, forcefully impeding press access to our own public officials, community members and even school children is beyond acceptable or understandable.

That’s especially true when all had gathered there to share in and celebrate a major accomplishment in human history that took place right here in New Mexico.

UpFront is a regular Journal news and opinion column.


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