Glitter leads to grindstone

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In a celebrity jab, New Mexico governor Bill Richardson accidently summed up the difficult road ahead for Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic enterprise as the nascent commercial space venture prepares to begin testing its six-passenger suborbital craft.

Richardson - who in June began building the $225 million Spaceport America launch complex in New Mexico with $198 million in state and local funding - was at California's Mojave Air and Space Port for the 7 December unveiling of VSS Enterprise and its four-engine carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo. He turned to his California counterpart Arnold Schwarzenegger and dared the "Governator" to join him for a flight. Then Richardson added: "But you can go first."

virgin-galactic-copyright 
  © Virgin Galacstic
If testing goes to schedule, Galactic will be go post-2011

The thinly veiled fear, while it produced a roar of laughter from the hundreds of Virgin Galactic future flyers in the room, captures the missing ingredient in a business plan that so far has largely focused on a safe ride up to low-Earth orbit and back to terra firma for the "astronauts".

DELIVER US, FATHER

Much rides on Burt Rutan, the technical father of both craft and head of developer and builder Scaled Composites.

Rutan says 40 to 50 of the six-seat, composite business jet-sized SpaceShipTwo vehicles will ultimately be needed to meet market demand, with multiple flights a day. Those flights include a lift to 50,000ft (15,200m) by the carrier craft, drop-off, motor ignition with vertical push to 316,000ft, weightless ballistic free fall for 5min, 6g re-entry and glider landing back at the spaceport.

Rutan issued some reality checks during the short question-and-answer session with his assessment of what is to come during the test and evaluation stage.

Rutan says the initial testing "under the parent contract" would be similar to that of SpaceShipOne, the prototype Rutan and investor Paul Allen used to capture the Ansari X Prize in 2004 with twin suborbital flights within two weeks. Covered will be captive carry, glide tests, rocket-powered lift and expanding the envelope.

Beyond that testing is a large question mark. "We don't have guidelines for government approval for manned commercial spacecraft," said Rutan, adding that NASA's track record for safety - loss of 4% of the astronaut corps - is "not acceptable".

The US Federal Aviation Administration is responsible for safety and licensing for commercial launches, but under congressional mandate, it cannot regulate crew and passenger safety, at least until 2012 when the provision expires. Meanwhile, Rutan says he will set the safety goal for SS2 to "that of early airliners".

SCALE US UP, BURT

Tightly coupled to safety is consistent production. Scaled Composites is, for the first time, facing the bane of many would-be aircraft manufacturers who started with a good idea but went out of business when taking a prototype to the production phase.

"This particular project is unique," he said. "We need to flow equipment and techniques directly to a manufacturing concern, complete with production tooling. It's a much bigger job than the research programmes we've done before."

PAYING THE WAY

Financially, Branson says he has had "a substantial net increase in customers in the worst market ever", although the number of firm orders and deposits has hovered around 300 since April, with Virgin Galactic holding $42 million in paid-up $200,000 tickets and $20,000 deposits.

Unknowns aside, what cannot be discounted is Branson's brazen, dogged determination to get a job done. That trait is best exemplified by his 1980s push to develop Virgin Atlantic into a successful international airline despite market leader British Airways' best efforts to squash it.

Evidence of Branson's staying power came during the after-party at the unveiling, when winds gusting to 80km/h knocked out all power to the airport tower and buildings and local stop lights.

Down at the Virgin Galactic end of the runway, however, half a dozen multi-coloured search lights continued to slash across the sky, beneath them Branson's white inflatable buildings packed with revellers drinking from an ice bar and eating gourmet food, head-bobbing to the music of British trance stars Above & Beyond - a full-on party in the midst of a storm.