Local News

Monday, Nov 12 2012 06:31 PM

Sir Richard Branson makes surprise visit to Mojave

BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

The most prominent commercial space company in eastern Kern County received a visit from its self-styled rock star founder, Sir Richard Branson, on Monday.

And despite the upbeat tone of its news release suggesting Branson was there to give a pep talk to some 175 Virgin Galactic employees, it seems just as likely that the publicity-savvy billionaire held some executives' feet to the fire behind closed doors.

During his visit and tour of his space company's sprawling facilities at Mojave Air and Space Port, Branson, accompanied by his daughter, Holly, met informally with employees and announced to staff that Virgin Galactic's Mojave-based sister organization, The Spaceship Company, which will manufacture and assemble a fleet of commercial space vehicles, is to be renamed and brought under the Virgin Galactic brand.

Branson's visit included a meeting with the team from Mojave-based Scaled Composites. Founded by now-retired Burt Rutan, Scaled developed Virgin Galactic's commercial vehicles, WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo.

Branson also had a rare look into the not yet unveiled interior of the rocketplane that is expected to someday carry two crewmembers and six passengers at a time into suborbital space.

But that indistinct "someday" may have become a source of frustration for the commercial space entrepreneur.

Taking space exploration out of the hands of the federal government was supposed to streamline development timelines and remove bureaucratic inefficiencies and roadblocks.

But Virgin has been regularly pushing back testing schedules -- the first powered testing of SpaceShipTwo has been delayed to 2013 -- suggesting it is as subject to technical glitches and critical safety concerns as NASA.

According to Associated Press reports, Branson predicted it will be at least another 12 or 18 months before the Virgin Galactic venture can offer paid space travel to adventurers.

Branson told a group of students last month he has "stopped counting" the days to the first commercial launch because it gets delayed "to the next year, to the next year."

When they do begin, Virgin Galactic's commercial launch operations will be based at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

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