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Virgin’s Branson says spacecraft will launch at Christmas, but staff cautious

May 23, 2013 1:02 am

Skift Take

Sir Richard’s enthusiasm can sometimes get the best of him. But his shoot-from-the-hip style has the benefit of pushing the troops further. And considering how far behind they are that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

— Jason Clampet

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Luke MacGregor  / Reuters

File photo of entrepreneur Branson waving a model of the LauncherOne cargo spacecraft from a window of an actual size model of SpaceShipTwo on display. Luke MacGregor / Reuters


Virgin Group billionaire Sir Richard Branson may be dreaming not of a white Christmas, but a space-y one.

Branson, in remarks last week during a trip to Dubai, said the first public Virgin Galactic flight would happen Dec. 25, according to The National, a publication in the United Arab Emirates.

Branson has long said he’d be on the inaugural space tourism flight, along with family members.

Asked about Branson’s remarks, a publicist for Virgin Galactic sent a company statement noting that the start date for carrying paying passengers has always hinged upon safety. Other factors are the successful completion of its test-flight program and the FAA issuing a key license, according to the statement provided by Sean Wilson of Griffin Communications Group.

Still, the first rocket-powered flight of the spaceship that will carry passengers — part of the testing program –was a “huge step forwards,” according to the email.

“The path is now clear to a fairly small number of similar flights which will see a rapid expansion of rocket burn time, culminating in full spaceflight, which we expect to achieve during 2013,” according to the statement. “Our best estimate at the moment, if test flights continue as expected, is that we could see the first paying customer flights in 2014. However, as noted previously, safety will always be our North Star.”

Steps that must happen before that point include the fit-out of the vehicle’s interior and moving the spaceline to New Mexico, according to the statement.

Virgin Galactic’s two-vehicle spaceflight system is being developed and tested in Mojave, Calif. The first full test flight to space will happen there. But plans call for the vehicles to move to Spaceport America — just north of Dona Ana County — to host suborbital tourism flights.

The flight carrying Branson and his children is slated to launch from Spaceport America.

The expected date for the first Virgin Galactic tourism spaceflight has been pushed back years from the initial forecasts.

Asked if Spaceport America could be ready to host an inaugural flight in December, spaceport director Christine Anderson replied: “We are ready when they are ready.”

New Mexico Spaceport Authority Chairman Rick Holdridge said he hadn’t heard about a possible Dec. 25 targeted launch date for Branson.

“The reality is, and Virgin Galactic will say the same thing: They’ll fly the first passengers when it’s safe to fly,” he said. “If he thinks that’s Dec. 25, well, he knows if they can do that because it’s his company.”

Continued Holdridge: “We’ll be ready when they are.”

Virgin Galactic earlier this year took possession of the keys to the terminal-hangar building at Spaceport America. It’s working on fit-out of the inside.

The spaceport authority is still finishing a 2,000-foot extension to the already-built 10,000 foot runway. That’s expected to wrap up in June.

In addition, customized operations plans must be developed that are specific to launching Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle into suborbital space, Holdridge said. The spaceport authority is in the “early stages” of setting those procedures. In doing that, he said the agency is working with Virgin Galactic, White Sands Missile Range and the FAA.

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