LAS CRUCES, N.M. — A fly-over by ’s SpaceShipTwo (SS2) suborbital vehicle and WhiteKnightTwo mothership marked the Oct. 17 dedication of the hangar at Spaceport America, the world’s first purpose-designed launch facility for space tourism and sub-orbital science flights.
The site has officially been providing limited commercial vertical launch services since 2006 but is now gearing up for SS2 sub-orbital flights within two years. Today’s event marked the formal completion of Phase One of the two-part construction program, with Phase Two now getting under way. The latest wave of work includes completion of the main hangar and construction of a visitors experience center.
Around 150 of the 460 people who have signed up for suborbital flights were on hand for the dedication of what Virgin founder Richard Branson says is “a 21st-century building for a 21st-century business.” Branson likens the birth of the Spaceport America project to the handshake agreement between the presidents of Pan Am andthat launched the 747. Negotiating the go-ahead, he recalls Bill Richards, then-governor of New Mexico, saying “If you build a spaceship I’ll build you a spaceport. I said ‘If you build a spaceport I’ll build you a spaceship.’”
Spaceport America will be the operating hub for Virgin Galactic and is expected to house up to two WK2s and five SS2s when fully operational sometime after 2013. The site also will serve as the base for all of Virgin’s astronaut preparation facilities and mission control.
Construction work has been conducted as part of a 20-year lease agreement between the state of New Mexico and Virgin Galactic, which is described as Spaceport America’s anchor tenant.
Other companies to so far establish links with the facility include Up Aerospace, Armadillo Aerospace, Boeing,and Moog-FTS. This list soon could expand, however, as more than 100 companies, organizations and education groups are registered for Virgin Galactic and sister company The Spaceship Co.’s (TSC) first “Industry Day” on Oct. 18.
The event, held in cooperation with the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) at Spaceport America, is designed to inform potential suppliers of goods and services that will be needed by the two companies to support commercial space operations in New Mexico. The event will include presentations by Virgin Galactic, the New Mexico Department of Economic Development and NMSA.
Virgin Galactic President/CEO George Whitesides says powered test flights to sub-orbit are still on track for next year, with rocket motor maker Sierra Nevada gearing up for a further full-duration ground test in November. The company acknowledges progress has been slower than planned, but adds that the focus remains on safety.
Investigations are continuing into an unexpected SS2 high-speed stall incident that took place earlier in October, but Whitesides says the event is “all part of development test” and not considered a showstopper. “We are moving forward and heading for powered flight tests next year,” he adds.
Doug Shane, president of WK2/SS2 developer Scaled Composites, says “We’re not worried about it. We found a cliff but it is outside the normal operating envelope. We basically understand what happened.” The crew activated the feathering mechanism to help recover control of the vehicle, which was on its 16th glide flight when the post-pitchover stall incident took place.