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Test flight crash sparks concerns over future of Foster’s spaceport

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Virgin Galactic’s fatal test flight crash could see New Mexico’s Norman Foster-designed Spaceport America become a ‘largely non-operational’ white elephant

The tragic incident – which killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury – looks likely to set back Richard Branson’s commercial space tourism programme several years.

First planned to launch in 2007, the Virgin Galactic project has repeatedly pushed back the date of its inaugural flight, Before last week’s accident the maiden voyage had been scheduled for February 2015.

Aerospace analyst Michael Blades told local news channel KRQE News 13 the inaugural flight could now be an extra five years away.

He said: ‘In order to get people back and forth, they need to show some sort of safety record, and there’s a whole process in order for that approval to happen.’

Opened in 2011, Foster’s 62,000 m2 spaceport in southern New Mexico close to the White Sands Missile Range may continue to remain ‘largely non-operational’ as a result.

The president of New Mexico-based think tank Rio Grande Foundation, Paul Gessing, told the AJ: ‘After the crash, it is safe to say that, if Branson continues to invest time and resources into this project – a proposition that is not a certainty in light of his post-crash remarks – others in the business will gain ground or surpass him.

‘Other spaceports will be constructed around the world, and Spaceport America could be left out of the mix entirely due in part to its out-of-the-way location.’ 

Gessing claimed the viability of funnelling a ‘significant investment of taxpayer dollars into such a speculative facility’ had always been in doubt.

He said: ‘I have previously likened the project to spending tax dollars to build an airport before the Wright Brothers’ first flight.

‘Of course, one thing is certain and that is that the taxpayers of New Mexico will be will be forced to pay to maintain and operate a facility that is largely non-operational.’ 

As anchor tenant Virgin was expected to pay the spaceport around £47,000 for each launch and the facility now stands to lose around £1 million for each year of the setback.

Just last month the £136 million development – funded by local tax payers – announced additional tenants and income streams were required to achieve financial self-sufficiency.

State legislature representative Luciano Varela told the New Mexico Watchdog: ‘I’m very concerned about what kind of effect this [crash] will have on New Mexico and the Spaceport.’

He continued: ‘The whole issue about the Spaceport is something we’re going to have to keep our eyes on.’

Greg Autry of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business added: ‘Many people expected this vehicle to already be flying 10 passengers and generating revenue out there.

‘Clearly this is going to delay the operation of this vehicle at least a year, I believe, maybe longer. And that’s got to be a huge problem for Spaceport America.’

In a newsletter, Spaceport executive director Christine Anderson said: ‘There will be setbacks. It is an inevitable part of moving forward– pushing the boundaries of human achievement. We must learn from these setbacks and become better and stronger for them.’

A spokesperson for Foster + Partners said: ‘All our thoughts and sympathies lie with the families of those two pilots.’






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