Sunday, October 14, 2007

Virgin Not Looking So Galactic

Tussman's Law: Nothing is as inevitable as a mistake whose time has come.

Last week, I was offering an opinion about the planned spaceport in New Mexico. I mentioned that Virgin Galactic thought it could launch its high priced roller-coaster ride by 2009. It seems I was being overly optimistic. The Register reports that Virgin is now talking about a launch being "several years away" and that they are still awaiting the results of an investigation into the explosion during their static engine firing.

Let's see, this is 2007, the spaceport is supposed to be ready in 2010 (using $225 mil of New Mexico taxpayer dough), even though they haven't lifted a single shovelfull of dirt, and now the only outfit that will actually use the silly thing is talking about a launch being several years down the line.

Yes, I know, "several" can mean "three", but let's be realistic. In the context of a company that's taken in $20 million in ticket sales against an order for roughly $130 million of SpaceShipTwos that have not yet been successfully tested in any way, we're probably looking at a lot longer than 3 years.

I suspect that Sir Richard Branson, smooth operator that he is, doesn't really care if Virgin Galactic ever launches. In fact, he'd probably be better off if it never got off the ground. What he wanted was publicity in the same way that Pan Am got publicity for selling tickets for Moon flights after 2001:A Space Odyssey was released. I have no problem with that. My problem is with governments squandering public money to build a spaceport that has no customers.

And don't count on commercial ISS support any time soon. RocketPlane Kistler is on the rocks, having fired its CEO, usually a sign of serious trouble. NASA has given RpK notice that they won't be getting any more of that $207 million promised to them because they have failed to raise the $500 million in capital required. Note that we won't be getting back any of the $32 million RpK has squandered so far, and NASA is going to see if they can find another rathole to pour the remaining $175 million down.

Michael "we don't need no stinkin' science missions" Griffin, head of NASA, has apparently been talking out of both sides of his mouth, at one moment saying that RpK's failure doesn't hurt the COTS program while concluding a contract with the Russians to support the Orbiting Turkey.

This would all be pretty amusing if it didn't involve public funds and wasn't giving space exploration a black eye. Worse, the Chinese and Japanese are reinventing the wheel, or space craft, by planning manned lunar missions. So two Asian superpowers are squandering funds when, at the very least, they could be cooperating. Better yet, the U.S. and Russia could be cooperating with both of the Asian nations so that they wouldn't have to recreate technologies that have been around for nearly 40 years.

That would, of course, require an immense degree of common sense and a common plan, both of which have been completely absent from the arena of manned space flight.

Given the record of the current administration, we could hardly expect anything else.

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