Branson's Sure This Time
It's not rocket science — or is it?
Sir Richard Branson has finally made it official — on, of all places, "The Late Show with David Letterman." Last month, the Virgin Galactic founder told Letterman that he will be on the first flight of SpaceShipTwo from New Mexico's Spaceport America "in February or March" 2015. That flight would follow test flights at the Mojave Air and Spaceport in California, where the ship is being developed by Scaled Composites. On the Letterman show, Branson said the inaugural, $250,000 up-and-down flights would reach the 62-mile limit of space and "make you an astronaut," followed by orbital flights "in time."
Only a few days after Branson's appearance, though, the space news service Parabolic Arc broke the news that Scaled Composite's chief aerodynamicist, Jim Tighe, would be leaving the company on the eve of that crucial series of flight tests. According to Parabolic Arc, "Tighe has been at the very center of the development of SpaceShipTwo.... Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan has credited Tighe with having designed the suborbital spacecraft.... One source said Tighe knows more about SpaceShipTwo, its systems, performance and flaws than even the pilots that fly it. The announcement of his departure has left many people in shock and disbelief, sources said."
As chronicled in these pages, this would hardly be the first hiccup in the long development of space tourism at Spaceport America. The English publication Private Eye, in fact, recently created a timeline of Branson's promises for Virgin Galactic on its website (www.private-eye.co.uk/sections.php?section_link=news&issue=1374). Some highlights — or lowlights:
- September 2004: Virgin Galactic plans to start construction next year "and to offer flights by 2007."
- October 2004: Branson says the first flight will be reserved for him and his family — "My dad has put his hand up and will be 90 at the time." That means 2008.
- April 2007: Branson tells a trade show in California that SpaceShipTwo's maiden commercial launch will be in 2009.
- May 2008: Under the headline, "Countdown Begins to First Galactic Take-off," Travel Weekly reports that Branson expects the inaugural flight "in two-and-a-half years' time." Or November 2010.
- December 2009: Branson tells 300 people who've booked flights (at a then-bargain $200,000 each) to pack their bags for regular flights beginning in 2011.
- April 2011: At a reopening of the Virgin America terminal in San Francisco, Branson says, "I hope 18 months from now, we'll be sitting in our spaceship and heading off into space" That would be October 2012.
- April 2013: "Maybe I'll dress up as Father Christmas," Branson says, promising the first liftoff will be Dec. 25, 2013.
- January 2014: London's Sunday Times starts serializing a "scathing new biography" of Branson by Tom Bower. Despite Virgin Galactic amassing $80 million in fares and deposits, Bower writes, he still has no license to fly and no rocket proven to be powerful enough to do so. A letter in response from CEO George Whitesides vows "commercial service later in 2014."
- February 2014: Branson tells a TV interviewer, "We should be going into space in about three or four months' time. If myself and my family are not in space by the end of the year I'd be very, very, very worried."
- March 2014: On a British TV show, Branson thinks even bigger: "If we can get enough people wanting to fly, we can start building Virgin hotels in space, we can start doing trips to Mars, we can colonize Mars, we can start pulling asteroids back to Earth to see what minerals they have got in them."
If you hurry, you might be able to get the Mars T-shirt concession at Spaceport America.
Life in a State of Nature
More reader critter photos.
Readers continue to share their snapshots of the wildlife of all kinds they spot out in our "Southwest zoo."
Here's one from Tom Vaughan of Silver City, who writes: "We live in Indian Hills and found this specimen looking us over the other day. Actually, there was a dead snake in the grass below."
About this snake picture, Dennis Lane writes: "I almost ran over this beautiful yet dangerous five-foot-long black-tailed rattlesnake on Pinos Altos Road at mile marker 9. It may have just had a meal and was on its way to its hideout, because we had no trouble getting it off the road. It was, however, buzzing to beat the band."
Andy Dimler, a frequent visitor from Denver, shared this photo of a gray fox at night in the Tres Hermanas Mountains, taken with a trail camera.
Can you spot the critter in this photo by Gordon Berman of Las Cruces? "The bleached earless lizard, its coloration adapted to the White Sands environment, is found between dunes where water collects to foster plant growth. Very hard to spot unless they are moving.
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. Sen. Martin Heinrich (known as "Hottie Heinrich" on Capitol Hill) will co-star in a reality TV show, "Rival Survival," with Arizona GOP Sen. Jeff Flake (below). Meanwhile, we close the book on tracking "New Mexico + Tesla."
- (3) Gov. Susana Martinez — 267 hits (▲)
- (1) New Mexico + immigration — 239 hits (▼)
- (2) Virgin Galactic — 174 hits (▼)
- (4) New Mexico drought — 173 hits (▼)
- (6) Sen. Tom Udall — 169 hits (▲)
- (5) New Mexico + Border Patrol — 145 hits (▲)
- (8) Gubernatorial candidate Gary King — 117 hits (▲)
- (-) Spaceport America — 107 hits (▲)
- (9) New Mexico + Tesla — 86 hits (▼)
- (10) Sen. Martin Heinrich — 80 hits (▼)