Virgin Galactic reveals futuristic outpost for space tourism

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A digital walkway with mirrored ceiling serves as the entrance to the social hub of Virgin Galactic's digs at Spaceport America near Upham, New Mexico, on Aug. 15, 2019. (AP Photos/Susan Montoya Bryan)
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Virgin Galactic's carrier plane makes its way across the apron in front of Spaceport America following a test flight over its new permanent home near Upham, New Mexico. (AP)
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Virgin Galactic pilots Mark "Forger" Stucky and Kelly Latimer discuss their morning test flight at Spaceport America near Upham, New Mexico, on Aug. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)
Updated 16 August 2019
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Virgin Galactic reveals futuristic outpost for space tourism

  • Critics suggested the project was a boondoggle, but supporters argued that there were bound to be hard and sometimes costly lessons
  • The interior spaces unveiled Thursday aim to connect paying customers with every aspect of the operation

UPHAM, New Mexico: Spaceport America is no longer just a shiny shell of hope that space tourism would one day launch from this remote spot in the New Mexico desert.
The once-empty hangar that anchors the taxpayer-financed launch and landing facility has been transformed into a custom-tailored headquarters where Virgin Galactic will run its commercial flight operations.
Two levels within the spaceport include mission control, a preparation area for pilots and a lounge for paying customers and their friends and families, with each element of the fit and finish paying homage to either the desert landscape that surrounds the futuristic outpost or the promise of traveling to the edge of space.
From hotel rooms to aircraft cabins, the Virgin brand touts its designs for their focus on the customer experience. Spaceport is no different.
Earthen tones help ground visitors on the first floor. The social hub includes an interactive digital walkway and a coffee bar made of Italian marble. On the upper deck, shades of white and gray speak to Virgin Galactic’s more lofty mission.
Company officials, offering the first glimpse of the facility Thursday, say the space is meant to create “an unparalleled experience” as customers prepare for what Virgin Galactic describes as the journey of a lifetime.
Just how soon customers will file into Virgin Galactic’s newly outfitted digs for the first commercial flights has yet to be determined. A small number of test flights are still needed.
Billionaire Richard Branson, who is behind Virgin Galactic, and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, first pitched the plan for the spaceport nearly 15 years ago.
There were construction delays and cost overruns. Virgin Galactic’s spaceship development took far longer than expected and had a major setback when its first experimental craft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot.
Critics suggested the project was a boondoggle, but supporters argued that there were bound to be hard and sometimes costly lessons.
Democratic state Sen. George Munoz has enduring concerns about the business model for commercial, low-orbit travel for passengers.
“You can have all the money in the world and come back and say, ‘Was my 30 seconds of fame worth that risk?’” he said.
Munoz says New Mexico’s anticipated return on investment in terms of jobs and visitors is still overdue, with more than $200 million public funds spent on Spaceport America in cooperation with Virgin Galactic as anchor tenant.
At the facility Thursday, the carrier plane for Virgin’s rocket-powered passenger ship made a few passes and touch-and-goes over a runway.
Behind the spaceport’s signature wall of curved glass, mission control sits on the second floor with an unobstructed view of the runway and beyond.
There’s also space behind two massive sliding doors to accommodate two of Virgin Galactic’s carrier planes and a fleet of six-passenger rocket ships.
Virgin Galactic posted on social media earlier this week that its carrier plane had landed in New Mexico and its main operating base was now at the spaceport. And Branson said the wing of Virgin’s next rocket ship has been completed.
Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said once the test flights are complete, commercial operations can begin.
Chief Pilot Dave Mackay said the crew in the coming days will fly simulated launch missions to ensure in-flight communications and airspace coordination work as planned. The pilots also will be familiarizing themselves with New Mexico’s airspace and landmarks.
“New Mexico is on track to become one of the very few places on this beautiful planet which regularly launches humans to space,” Mackay said.
Branson will be among them. About 600 people have reserved a seat, according to the company, at a cost of $250,000 a ticket.
That buys them a ride on the winged rocket ship, which is dropped in flight from the carrier airplane. Once free, it fires its rocket motor to hurtle toward the boundary of space before gliding back down.
The latest test flight reached an altitude of 56 miles (90 kilometers) while traveling at three times the speed of sound.


Squabbles erupt as G7 leaders open summit in French resort

Updated 25 August 2019
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Squabbles erupt as G7 leaders open summit in French resort

  • Disputes on trade, climate may eclipse Macron’s agenda
  • EU’s Tusk warns of lack of global unity, spars with Johnson

BIARRITZ, France: Squabbles erupted among G7 nations on Saturday as their leaders gathered for an annual summit, exposing sharp differences on global trade tensions, Britain’s exit from the EU and how to respond to the fires raging in the Amazon rainforest.
French President Emmanuel Macron, the summit host, planned the three-day meeting in the Atlantic seaside resort of Biarritz as a chance to unite a group of wealthy countries that has struggled in recent years to speak with one voice.
Macron set an agenda for the group — France, Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States — that included the defense of democracy, gender equality, education and the environment. He invited Asian, African and Latin American leaders to join them for a global push on these issues.
However, in a bleak assessment of relations between once-close allies, European Council President Donald Tusk said it was getting “increasingly” hard to find common ground.
“This is another G7 summit which will be a difficult test of unity and solidarity of the free world and its leaders,” he told reporters ahead of the meeting. “This may be the last moment to restore our political community.”
US President Donald Trump had brought last year’s G7 summit to an acrimonious end, walking out early from the gathering in Canada and rejecting the final communique.
Trump arrived in France a day after responding to a new round of Chinese tariffs by announcing that Washington would impose an additional 5% duty on some $550 billion worth of Chinese imports, the latest escalation of the tit-for-tat trade war by the world’s two largest economies.
“So far so good,” Trump told reporters as he sat on a seafront terrace with Macron, saying the two leaders had a special relationship. “We’ll accomplish a lot this weekend.”
Macron listed foreign policy issues the two would address, including Libya, Syria and North Korea, and said they shared the objective of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Trump later wrote on Twitter that lunch with Macron was the best meeting the pair has yet had, and that a meeting with world leaders on Saturday evening also “went very well.”
However, the initial smiles could not disguise the opposing approaches of Trump and Macron to many problems, including the knotty questions of protectionism and tax.
Before his arrival, Trump repeated a threat to tax French wines in retaliation for a new French levy on digital services, which he says unfairly targets US companies.
Two US officials said the Trump delegation was also irked that Macron had skewed the focus of the G7 meeting to “niche issues” at the expense of the global economy, which many leaders worry is slowing sharply and at risk of slipping into recession.
French riot police used water cannons and tear gas on Saturday to disperse anti-capitalism protesters in Bayonne, near Biarritz. A police helicopter circled as protesters taunted lines of police.
The leaders themselves were gathering behind tight security in a waterfront conference venue, the surrounding streets barricaded by police.

Spat over ‘Mr. No Deal’ Brexit
Macron opened the summit with a dinner at the base of a clifftop lighthouse overlooking Biarritz, where a menu of piperade, a Basque vegetable specialty, tuna and French cheeses awaited the leaders.
Adding to the unpredictable dynamic between the G7 leaders are the new realities facing Brexit-bound Britain: dwindling influence in Europe and growing dependency on the United States.
New Prime Minister Boris Johnson will want to strike a balance between not alienating Britain’s European allies and not irritating Trump and possibly jeopardizing future trade ties. Johnson and Trump will hold bilateral talks on Sunday morning.
Johnson and Tusk sparred before the summit over who would be to blame if Britain leaves the EU on Oct. 31 without a withdrawal agreement.
Tusk told reporters he was open to ideas from Johnson on how to avoid a no-deal Brexit when the two men meet.
“I still hope that PM Johnson will not like to go down in history as Mr.No Deal,” said Tusk, who as council president leads the political direction of the 28-nation European Union.
Johnson, who has said since he took office last month that he will take Britain out of the bloc on Oct. 31 regardless of whether a deal can be reached, later retorted that it would be Tusk himself who would carry the mantle if Britain could not secure a new withdrawal agreement.
“I would say to our friends in the EU if they don’t want a no-deal Brexit then we’ve got to get rid of the backstop from the treaty,” Johnson told reporters, referring to the Irish border protocol that would keep the border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland open after Brexit.
“If Donald Tusk doesn’t want to go down as Mr.No Deal then I hope that point will be borne in mind by him, too,” Johnson said on his flight to France.
Johnson is trying to persuade EU leaders to drop the backstop from a withdrawal agreement that was negotiated by his predecessor but rejected three times by the British Parliament as the United Kingdom struggles to fulfill a 2016 referendum vote to leave the bloc.

‘Not the way to proceed’
Despite the Brexit tensions, diplomats played down the likelihood of Trump and Johnson joining hands against the rest, citing Britain’s foreign policy alignment with Europe on issues from Iran and trade to climate change.
“There won’t be a G5+2,” one senior G7 diplomat said.
Indeed, Johnson said he would tell Trump to pull back from a trade war that is already destabilising economic growth around the world.
“This is not the way to proceed,” he said. “Apart from everything else, those who support the tariffs are at risk of incurring the blame for the downturn in the global economy, irrespective of whether or not that is true.”
Anti-summit protests have become common, and on Saturday thousands of anti-globalization activists, Basque separatists and “yellow vest” protesters marched peacefully across France’s border with Spain to demand action from the leaders.
“It’s more money for the rich and nothing for the poor,” said Alain Missana, an electrician wearing a yellow vest — symbol of anti-government protests that have rattled France for months.
EU leaders piled pressure on Friday on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro over fires raging in the Amazon rainforest.
Even so, Britain and Germany were at odds with Macron’s decision to pressure Brazil by blocking a trade deal between the EU and the Mercosur group of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said not concluding the trade deal was “not the appropriate answer to what is happening in Brazil now.”
The UK’s Johnson appeared to disagree with Macron on how to respond. “There are all sorts of people who will take any excuse at all to interfere with trade and to frustrate trade deals and I don’t want to see that,” he said.