Friday’s events at Spaceport America went off pretty much as planned. There were the speeches by dignitaries (including Richard Branson, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver), followed by the flyover by WhiteKnightTwo with SpaceShipTwo attached. After the two vehicles completed several passes and appeared to fly off, Branson and the others started a press conference.
However, a short time into the press conference Branson interrupted the Q&A. “I rang the pilot of the spaceship and said, ‘Look, we’ve got a runway here. Why are you going back to Mojave? Why can’t you come and sort of show it off?’ I’m not sure I managed to persuade him, but maybe we could all sort of put some vibes up in the sky.” What followed was the odd spectacle of several hundred people shaking their hands, clapping, and stomping their feet, all at the insistence of Branson, to try and get WK2 and SS2 to return.
“What’s the point of having a spaceport if you don’t land at a spaceport?” Branson asked. The first time around this didn’t get the vehicles to return, but several minutes later he interrupted the press conference again to get people to do the same thing. And this time, it “worked”: WK2 and SS2 reappeared in the skies over the spaceport and landed on the runway, which during the ceremony had been renamed the Bill Richardson Spaceway. The vehicles became the backdrop for photo opportunities and the like for the remainder of the event.
Besides the unexpected (albeit rumored in the days leading up to the event) landing, there were only a few other announcements or other newsworthy items at the event. In his speech Virgin Galatic CEO George Whitesides announced a new program called “Galactic Unite”, an initiative designed to support STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. That program is being done in cooperation with Virgin Unite, the Virgin Group’s non-profit arm, and the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium.
Virgin officials did not talk too much about other aspects of the spaceport or vehicle development. “We saw the latest successful major test fire of our rocket motor” being developed by Scaled Composites and Sierra Nevada Corporation, Whitesides said, but didn’t mention when that test took place other than the test is “moving us well along the way to an ambitious upcoming test schedule.” Later, Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn said that for the hybrid rocket motor they were looking at replacing the rubber used as the solid fuel with “basically recycled nylon” that would have a lower carbon output than the conventional motor. It wasn’t clear from those statements what fuel they’re using for the rocket motor in the current tests (I was next up to ask a question along those lines when Branson interrupted again just before the return of WK2 and SS2.)
Also during the press conference Branson was asked about orbital vehicle development. That is a long-term goal of the company, but Branson suggested they would try to find ways to accelerate it. “Obviously we want to move on to orbital after we’ve got suborbital under our belts, and maybe even before that,” he said, then mentioned NASA’s commercial crew development program and its request for proposals in the coming months. “Virgin Galactic is going to put forward proposals, and we plan to start work on an orbital program quite quickly.” Branson declined to provide any details on Virgin’s orbital vehicle plans, but said the company would say more in the next three to four months.