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Chasing Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo

Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald travelled thousands of kilometres in an attempt to witness Virgin Galactic's first commercial space flight

Travelling thousands of kilometres to try to witness Virgin Galactic's 1st commercial space flight

Bob McDonald went all the way to Spaceport America in New Mexico to try and witness Virgin Galatic's inaugural commercial flight on SpaceShipTwo. (Bob McDonald)

During the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing last July 20th, as everyone looked back over the past half century of space flight, it seemed fitting to look to the future and the beginning of the next space age, which was rumoured to happen around the same time. 

It didn't.

Last February, Richard Branson announced that he would like to launch the new age of space tourism by becoming the first passenger on his Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo ​​​​​​on July 20th, the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. The rocket space plane called "VSS Unity" had reached space a couple of times on test flights, including one flight with a staff member on board as a passenger with the test pilots. What better time to announce the start of a new space age than when the rest of the world was celebrating the old one?

In May, Virgin Galactic announced that they were moving their operations to Spaceport America, a purpose-built airport in the desert of New Mexico intended to be the hub of commercial space flight.

Heading to Spaceport America

By the time July came around, there was no mention of Branson's flight on the Virgin website, but my partner and I decided to make Spaceport a destination for a motorcycle trip to at least see the facility and perhaps the spaceship for real. Surely there would be some kind of event happening there.

After two weeks and close to 10,000 km travelling from Victoria, BC down through California, across the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, we reached the extremely remote Spaceport on July 15th, the day before the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11. And there, parked just inside the gate was SpaceShipTwo. Or so we thought. 

The space port was remarkably quiet with only a few vehicles in the parking lot and a very secure gate blocking the entrance. The security guards politely explained that there was nothing happening there and that in fact Virgin Galactic had not in fact moved in yet. (They did move later in August).

"But SpaceshipTwo is sitting right over there," I pointed out.

The guard replied, "That's just a model. Everything is happening in Mojave." 

Redirecting to the Mojave Desert

The Mojave Air and Space Port is where the spaceship was built and all the previous test flights have taken place. So there was a chance the vehicle would be on display for July 20th, the anniversary of the first moon landing.

Crossing a desert in July on a motorcycle with temperatures well above 37 C is not the most comfortable, let alone doing it twice, because Mojave was a two day ride back to California. But we managed to reach Mojave for the 20th to find no SpaceshipTwo on display. The only activity was a lecture in a small room by a former NASA employee about working on the Apollo moon rocket.

Across the way, a large building with the Virgin Galactic logo houses the spaceship as well as a fleet of new ones under construction. We headed over, but again, the parking lot was empty, door locked. We rang the bell anyway and were greeted by two young engineers. 

Oh Richard does that. The spaceship needs more test flights before it's ready.- Engineers at Virgin Galactic in the Mojave Air and Space Port 

"I'm a journalist from Canada and heard that Richard Branson was to make his first flight today. What happened?"

The engineers looked at each other and smiled. "Oh Richard does that. The spaceship needs more test flights before it's ready."

We were not allowed into the building to see the spaceships, nor would they discuss any details about what was going on inside. Not far away, on the same space port property, another even larger hanger housing Stratolaunch, the world's largest aircraft designed to launch spacecraft from the air, was also completely closed up with no one in sight.

The dawn of a new space age... just not yet

Apparently, the new space age was not quite ready to leave the ground 50 years after humans first landed on the moon. This demonstrates that even after more than half a century of space flight, it is still hard to do. It also shows just how amazing it was that the moon landings were pulled off in only eight years after President Kennedy set the goal and deadline. Of course, the Apollo program was helped along by a virtual blank check from the government and a workforce of 400,000 people. That kind of support no longer exists so the private companies are struggling to develop new technology and fly it safely on their own.

In this photo, people watch the Apollo 11 launch at Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969. Four days later, the capsule would land on the moon. (Robert Fleming)

Still, Richard Branson is hopeful he will get to fly within a year while his competitor, Jeff Bezos, head of Blue Origin, hopes to be flying passengers in his rocket New Shepard in the near future, and Elon Musk is talking about sending tourists around the moon and establishing a colony on Mars.

The timeline of these events will likely be longer than the billionaire owners of the companies would like, but perhaps that is a more realistic pace of space development, rather than the frantic space race of the 1960s.

In any case, when Richard Branson does make his first space flight, I'd like to be a witness, but I'd really like to return to Spaceport America one day as a passenger. 

Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald also visited the Mojave Air and Space Port this summer in an attempt to get a glimpse of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo. (Bob McDonald)

About the Author

Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.

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