Virgin dedicates its Spaceport America terminal

Richard Branson uncorks champagne

Sir Richard Branson, dangling from the top of Spaceport America's new terminal building, dedicates the building with a bottle of champagne. (credit: J. Foust)

It was the biggest line of the day—and Sir Richard Branson flubbed it.

Branson was dangling from the balcony Spaceport America’s new terminal building, halfway down the building’s glass wall. He and his son and daughter had joined a dance company, Project Bandaloop, for their performance on the building’s wall. After the dancers and Branson’s children rappelled down to the ground, Branson remained in place, and then had an oversized champagne bottle lowered to him so he could formally dedicate, and name, the building. “And, the name is, whoa!” he said as he uncorked the bottle, “Virgin Galactic Galactic.” And then, after a six-second pause, “Gateway to Space!”

While there was laughter and cheers from the several hundred people in attendance (“more than 800″, according to Virgin), some were left scratching their heads. “What did he say the name was?” one person in the media section asked. “Something about a gateway to space, I think,” said another. The building’s name, in fact, is now officially the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space.”

That, though, was a minor glitch in an event designed primarily to show off the spaceport and demonstrate Virgin’s continued commitment to flying SpaceShipTwo from the spaceport in the near future. The new name for the terminal building was one of the few new developments from the event. Virgin did announce some new research customers, including the Challenger Center (whose founder, June Scobee Rodgers, was in attendance). Virgin also announced its first hire for a new group of commercial pilots who will fly WK2 and SS2: Keith Colmer, an Air Force pilot who had previously applied to NASA’s astronaut corps but just missed the cut.

WK2 and SS2 take off

WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo take off from Spaceport America's runway on a brief captive carry flight over the spaceport. (credit: J. Foust)

At a “press conference” during the event (which, despite the name, did not allow any questions from the media), Virgin Galactic officials played up the progress they’ve made in the last year and sought to set themselves apart from the competition. “There is no other company that is as close to flying people to space as Galactic,” said Virgin Galactic president and CEO George Whitesides. “There is no one else test flying vehicles that can take you and me into space. And there is no one whose vehicles are based on a design that has already been safely to space to people,” a reference to SS2’s precursor, SpaceShipOne.

WK2/SS2 over Spaceport America

WK2 and SS2 soar over Spaceport America's new terminal building. (credit: J. Foust)

New Mexico officials at the event, including Governor Susana Martinez and Congressman Steve Pearce, focused on the economic benefits of the spaceport, including both the jobs created during the spaceport’s construction and those that will be created when the spaceport begins operations. Martinez in particular saw the spaceport as both a way to inspire the state’s youth to study science and engineering, as well as a source of high-tech jobs. “As a young child, what could be more exciting than space travel?” she asked. “We want these new jobs to be created right here so that young New Mexicans don’t have to leave the state to find fulfilling work.”

Martinez, who past comments suggested she was at least somewhat skeptical about the $200-million investment in the spaceport, sounded a little excited herself about the spaceport. “I look forward to strengthening the partnership between the state and Virgin Galactic,” she said. Turning to Branson, she added, “And Richard, today I may have to add it to my bucket list.”

Virgin didn’t offer any new clues yesterday on when it will begin flights from Spaceport America. “Our contractors are working hard now to get the system ready for the first powered flights next year,” Whitesides said, a timeline similar to what he said early this month. He did add that another full-scale ground test of SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor is planned “very soon”.

Terminal building

Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space, the new terminal building at Spaceport America. (credit: J. Foust)

The fact that Virgin is still some time from beginning flights at Spaceport America is perhaps a relief to New Mexico, since the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space”, while formally dedicated yesterday, isn’t quite done. Walk up to that distinctive glass wall—which, in the bright sunlight, acts like a mirror—and peer inside, and you see that the interior rooms that will host Virgin Galactic’s operations, astronaut lounge, and other facilities, are still unfurnished, with the walls and floors completely bare. In one case, a door leading into the building was still lacking a handle. However, the building can already serve one its primary purposes: serving as a hangar for WK2 and SS2, which is where they vehicles were housed Sunday when spaceport executive director Christine Anderson saw them for the first time. “It was so awesome to see that,” she said. “Then I thought, ‘Wow, it fits in the hangar. Super!'”

Virgin appeared very pleased with the building and its unique design, as well as its environmentally-friendly characteristics that won it a LEED Gold rating. “Simply put,” Branson said, “it is a 21st century building for a 21st century business.”

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>