Inside the Capitol

Friday, August 03, 2007

8-8 Will Explosion Affect Spaceport America?


Syndicated Columnist

      SANTA FE -- The commercial space industry has suffered its first fatalities. How will that affect New Mexico's Spaceport America?

      We know it has had some effect because a news conference to announce the architect and design for our spaceport was cancelled by director Rick Homans in deference to the deaths.

   Five days later a simple news release told of the selection but no details were given pending an eventual rescheduling of the news conference.

   That may take awhile. New Mexico officials don't want the California explosion that killed three workers and seriously injured three more to crowd out a focus on our state's spaceport.

   A team of U.S. and British architects was chosen to design the main terminal and hangar facility. Many had predicted that the team with a British component might get the bid because of the major involvement of British-based Virgin Galactic in the spaceport project.

   Another reason for the postponed news conference may be that Virgin Galactic has been very secretive about its operation and about the construction of SpaceShip Two by Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites at Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

   A fleet of five SpaceShip Twos will carry paying passengers to the edge of space from New Mexico's Spaceport America beginning in late 2009 or early 2010.

   Virgin Galactic's secrecy about the project has visibly frustrated Rutan who couldn't answer questions he would have liked to have fielded at the news conference following the explosion.

   In fairness to Virgin Galactic and its founder Sir Richard Branson, there now is hot competition in all phases of the commercial space field.

   Along that same line, Mojave Air and Space Port is New Mexico's biggest competition. Mojave already is certified and is the nation's first inland spaceport. It didn't get Branson's business because the state of California didn't offer him as sweet a deal as New Mexico did.

   Branson may have cast his lot with New Mexico but Rutan is sticking with Mojave. He is predicting big things ahead for Mojave. He recently told the local newspaper that significant infrastructure will be built within the next year to handle the space tourism business.

   Rutan predicts Mojave will beat out New Mexico because passengers want to see the ocean, not just desert on their flights. The first several flights of SpaceShip Two are scheduled to fly out of Mojave since Spaceport America won't be ready for two or three years.

   Even before the explosion at Mojave, while a component of the space plane was being tested, there was plenty of chatter about the risks of commercial space flight.

   A Virgin Galactic official has told a group of investors that the public understands the danger of space travel after two disasters involving NASA shuttles.

   And before that was the disaster involving an Apollo space capsule. Astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were burned to death during a routine simulation. No independent inquiry into the incident was ever conducted. The exact cause of the disaster remains unknown.

   Grissom knew that 20,000 failures of the spacecraft cabin and engines had been recorded. He wasn't anxious to be locked in that cabin.

   We learned of their deaths because they already had gained fame. But how many deaths of workers in the development of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and shuttle programs do we not know about? As far as NASA ever told us, there were none, but there likely were quite a few.

   Some critics predict that in a state already divided over the spaceport that there won't be the political will to continue the process. I don't see that happening, but spaceport officials appear to be a little gun shy right now

   It obviously is a difficult time for the California firm and the families of the workers. Investigations currently are under way by Scaled Composites, the Mojave spaceport and California's Occupational Safety and Health Administration. That's as it should be.

WED, 8-08-07


JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505

(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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