Back in May, Virgin Galactic announced another delay, to the disappointment of Michelle Lujan Grisham and her predecessors. It was less than a year ago that Spaceport was the scene of high fives and happy dances celebrating the awesome wonderfulness of – what exactly? A replication of what NASA accomplished six decades ago? Almost 20 years and a quarter of a billion dollars after the “breakthrough” concept/scam was first proposed we have, what, the world’s most expensive roller coaster?
Politicians in Santa Fe promised this was New Mexico’s foot in the door for a whole new wonderful industry, space travel. However just like the junked state supercomputer and the revived Rail Runner, what is delivered is significantly less than what was promised.
What really happened in the skies over New Mexico? Was it true space travel? Will it ever develop into space travel? These were the hard questions never asked, let alone answered. To have anything other than a simple joyride, a spacecraft must get to orbit, and a useable orbit at that.
One of the little-known realities is that in orbital mechanics, it isn’t how high you get, it is how fast you go. Sadly, Virgin Galactic falls way short of both. The 50 miles of altitude hailed as the edge of space is less than half of the 130-mile altitude of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik. The GPS satellites circle the earth every 12 hours, 1,260 miles above sea level. Even if they could lob the “Unity” “spacecraft” higher, the maximum velocities achieved are less than a third of what is needed to insert a device into orbit.
Wait though … this is just a first step. Really? “Air launch to orbit” systems have only placed very small satellites into low orbits. There are serious payload limitations with these systems. Furthermore, single-stage-to-orbit remains a fantasy.
To get outside the atmosphere and stay there requires a multi-stage launch vehicle. That means you must drop big pieces of rocket out of the sky, not real popular over land. While Space X has managed to recover stage one, the second stage is still jettisoned in the ocean. Blue Origin sub-orbital launches from Van Horn use a single recoverable booster. To do orbital flights Blue Origin will move to ocean-front property, something in short supply in New Mexico. Even Virgin Orbit did its launches over the Pacific Ocean far from Spaceport America.
For argument’s sake let’s pretend one could launch a multistage rocket from Spaceport America. The little problem of latitude remains. Without delving too deeply into orbital mechanics, latitude of the launch site determines the angle or inclination of the orbit. Minimum or zero inclination is preferred. To reduce the inclination once in orbit a “plane change” is done. It is the most energy-intensive orbital maneuver. “Energy” means fuel, fuel mean weight, and weight is the enemy of all space programs. High latitude is a problem that has dogged the Russian space program from the beginning. It is also the reason the European Space Agency launch site is in French Guiana, practically on the equator.
After a quarter of a billion dollars and a decade and a half, Spaceport is looking like just a mirage. Too bad economics, science and orbital mechanics got in the way.
A former FBI agent and state representative, Dennis Kintigh served as mayor of Roswell from 2014 to March 2022. He has a B.S. in aerospace engineering from the University of Arizona and spent six years in U.S.A.F and civilian military space programs.