Suborbital PR Watch
Virgin Galactic hires a top PR firm — maybe a tad too late to manage bad news about its spacecraft. (Just the engine and wings, no worries!)
Expressing confidence that Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson and his children will launch into space from New Mexico's Spaceport America before the end of 2014, the company has hired a high-profile PR firm, Edelman Digital, to manage its press and social media. Industry journal Adweek predicted, "Virgin Galactic is going to be social media on rocket fuel." It also used the unfortunate phrase, "The Internet would completely blow up."
As space-news site Parabolic Arc (www.parabolicarc.com) noted, "blow up" is a phrase "one should never, ever use in connection with any type of rocket program."
But Adweek's ill-phrased hype may be the least of the PR firm's worries. In late April, Parabolic Arc managing editor Douglas Messier posted a lengthy report on troubles with the engine that's supposed to power Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo. In testing by Scaled Composites under contract with Virgin Galactic, "The burn times and altitudes were far short of getting SpaceShipTwo anywhere near suborbital space." The engine "produces such severe oscillations and vibrations" that firing it full blast would rip the ship and crew apart.
At best, with modifications to the engine, SpaceShipTwo might be able to reach the 50-mile limit of space as defined by the US Air Force — thus meeting Virgin Galactic's legal obligations to paying passengers. But the engine couldn't power it to the 62-mile-high international boundary the company has been promising for the past decade. (Flights were originally to begin in 2007.) Nor could the craft carry the full payload — two pilots and six passengers — used to sell Spaceport America to New Mexico taxpayers.
According to Messier, that's why work is underway on an alternate engine that uses nitrous oxide and nylon. But that won't be ready for the first SpaceShipTwo, scheduled for takeoff later this year.
Why not wait for the alternate engine? Why, in fact, might the company be tempted to rush testing of the modified engine going into the first space plane? "The company has eaten through an enormous amount of funding over the past nine years without flying a single paying customer," Messier notes. And the bill on $390 million in funding from the Abu Dhabi government comes due in 2015. That investment reportedly specifically requires Branson to fly by year's end. Otherwise, there could be "significant clawbacks."
No sooner did Scaled Composites turn over that first SpaceShipTwo to Virgin Galactic, this spring, than another problem cropped up. In May, the London Sunday Times reported that cracks were found in the spars running along the length of the wings, where they connect with the fuselage. According to a Parabolic Arc story by the journalist who broke the story, "One particularly worrisome aspect is that nobody knows why or when [the cracks] occurred." Despite repairs, engineers "don't know if they have addressed the root cause, or whether the problem will reoccur. This is not an insignificant matter because this is the aircraft that will launch a lot of billionaires and millionaires into space."
It is also, of course, the aircraft whose success or failure will make or break New Mexico's investment in Spaceport America. Virgin Galactic has denied that the wings had cracks, calling the problem "adhesive imperfections."
It will be interesting to see whether Branson is willing to bet his life and that of his children, Sam and Holly, who are scheduled to accompany him on the maiden flight, on the repairs to those "adhesive imperfections."
At least Virgin Galactic is providing a shot in the arm to the southern New Mexico economy, right? After all, Doña Ana County taxpayers passed an increase in their gross-receipts tax to help pay for Spaceport America in neighboring Sierra County.
Well, those PR mavens might also want to rein in Mark Butler, a senior program manager at Virgin Galactic, who was interviewed by Albuquerque Business First in April. Butler was gung-ho about "buying local" and all the business the company is doing in Albuquerque. But southern New Mexico? Not so much.
"Suppliers from the south (of the state) are limited," Butler conceded, quickly changing the subject: "We use many resources from Albuquerque."
At least he didn't say "blow up."
Desert Exposure editor David A. Fryxell has been covering the
promises made by Spaceport America boosters
since February 2006 ("Have Spacesuit, Will Travel").
Life in a State of Nature
More reader photos of creatures big and small.
Contributors new and old continue to share their photos of the critters they see in our "Southwest zoo."
This "cheeky woodpecker" helping himself to the hummingbird feeder was spotted and photographed by Robert Cwik of Silver City.
Cora Bucana and her husband found this Gila monster near Rodeo one morning. She writes, "It is about a foot long and the colors are beautiful."
This walking stick posing on an antler was sent in by Ron Saltzman of Las Cruces.
Send your own photos of local creatures great and small to firstname.lastname@example.org or mail to PO Box 191, Silver City, NM 88062, and include your postal address for a little thank-you.
The Tumbleweeds Top 10
Who and what's been making news from New Mexico this past month, as measured by mentions in Google News (news.google.com). Trends noted are vs. last month's total hits; * indicates new to the list. Number in parenthesis indicates last month's Top 10 rank. The GOP touts Gov. Martinez nationwide with T-shirts ($29 donation) quoting her revelation when she switched parties in 1995: "I'll be damned. I'm a Republican!" So is ex-VP Dick Cheney, who'll appear at a Martinez fundraiser June 24 in Las Cruces; maybe he'll find those WMDs there.
- (1) Virgin Galactic — 280 hits (▼)
- (-) New Mexico primary election — 203 hits*
- (5) Sen. Tom Udall — 176 hits (▲)
- (4) Gov. Susana Martinez — 169 hits (-)
- (2) New Mexico drought — 149 hits (▼)
- (3) New Mexico + immigration — 150 hits (▼)
- (6) New Mexico + Tesla — 113 hits (▲)
- (7) Sen. Martin Heinrich — 95 hits (▲)
- (9) Ex-Gov. Bill Richardson — 89 hits (▲)
- (8) New Mexico same-sex marriage — 84 hits (▼)