Spaceport America Faces Uncertain Future

Spaceport America

Following the fatal crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two in October, space tourism faces an uncertain future, and Spaceport America is already feeling the strain. The state-owned $218.5 million facility in New Mexico is asking lawmakers to approve emergency funding to keep the facility running while waiting for Virgin Galactic spacecraft to be ready to launch, or for new customers.

According to KOBr, the $4.5 million emergency funds Spaceport executives are requesting will be spent on a new hangar and to cover the deficit left in the wake of the Virgin Galactic delay, a $1.7 million setback. The Virgin Galactic launch was planned for 2015, but the failed test flight that killed one SpaceShip Two pilot and put another in the hospital has caused the company substantial delays. Virgin Galactic now plans to launch no earlier than 2016.

Spaceport America’s executive director, Christine Anderson, says that Virgin Galactic is not the only egg in the basket, and that Spaceport has always planned to diversify its revenue stream. Anderson says that, while thrilled to have an anchor tenant like Virgin Galactic, Spaceport America has always sought new clients. Anderson adds that Spaceport America is just getting started.

A meeting with New Mexico lawmakers to request the emergency funding had some mixed results. Some officials would prefer to pull the plug on the facility altogether, others see a huge taxpayer investment worth too much to back out of. Rep. Patricia Lundstrom says Spaceport America is falling behind in the competition and expressed disappointment with the presentation given by Anderson during the meeting. Spaceport America does have at least one powerful ally in Senate Finance Committee Chairman, John Arthur Smith, who says too much money has been put into the project for the state to walk away from the taxpayer’s investment.

It is believed that Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two crashed when pilot Michael Alsbury prematurely “feathered” the aircraft, unlocking a lever which would have caused the tail of the aircraft to lift, creating drag and causing the craft to spin out of control, according to the Los Angeles Times. The craft disintegrated over the Mojave Desert, killing Alsbury and injuring fellow pilot, Peter Siebold.

Virgin Galactic chairman, Christopher Hart, said it could take up to a year to fully investigate the human-machine interface leading up to the crash. The company plans to push forward, and chief executive George Whiteside has confirmed Virgin Galactic’s intention to complete an aircraft by the end of the year.  The delay, however, has left Spaceport America without an imminent launch and out the $1.7 million Virgin Galactic would have paid the company to utilize its facilities. Spaceport America now faces the financial burden of its tenant client’s uncertain future.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there are eight licensed, non-federal launch sites in the U.S., and many more have been proposed across the country, but Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two was set to be the first commercial flight from such a site. With the unexpected delay and increased safety concerns, it is unclear what the future holds for space tourism, no longer just a concept, but still miles from actuality.

By Sree Aatmaa Khalsa

Sources:

Photo by: Land Rover MENA – Flickr License
NBC
KOB4
Mashable
The New York Times
Los Angeles Times
Spaceport America
FAA

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