Sunday, July 31, 2011

Is New Mexico Spaceport a "Bold Attempt"?

Sir Richard Branson with SpaceShipTwo. Photo source: Virgin Galactic.

A July 27 article by Bloomberg News suggests that New Mexico's Spaceport America may never realize its potential as originally promoted.

"You have to think in decades" to comprehend the benefits of spaceport development, said Derek Webber, a director of Spaceport Associates, a consulting firm. Webber, a former satellite and launch vehicle engineer for aerospace companies, is a self-described advocate of space tourism. While New Mexico’s project is "a bold first attempt," he said, any return on its investment may be several years away.

The article inaccurately claims, "The frontier of commercial spaceflight, which opened when NASA’s shuttle program ended this month, is taking shape in an unfinished assembly of metal, glass and concrete that resembles a rust-colored stingray burrowed halfway into New Mexico’s desert."

Spaceport America has nothing to do with NASA's commmercial cargo and crew programs. Those are designed specifically to grow a domestic commercial industry to deliver cargo and crew to the International Space Station.

Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, the spaceport's initial tenant, is intended for a suborbital tourist industry. Virgin craft will be incapable of reaching the ISS.

The article quotes Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides as claiming that 440 people have already signed up for flights at $200,000 per passenger. if true, that means $88 million in revenue should all those customers actually buy a ticket.

When it opens for business, the company will send as many as 500 people into suborbital space in the first year, Whitesides said. SpaceShipTwo would be taken 50,000 feet into the air by a carrier craft called WhiteKnightTwo.

At that height, the smaller ship would detach and use its own engines to climb to more than 62 miles above Earth’s surface — the common definition of when space begins, and still miles below orbital altitude. Passengers will have six minutes of weightlessness before the ship returns to Spaceport America, where it would glide to a landing on the 2-mile runway.

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