Vice President Mike Pence continued his tour of American space facilities, this time dropping by the Mojave Space Port in California, the first time he has visited a commercial space installation. Pence has previously visited NASA field centers, the Johnson Spaceflight Center south of Houston, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Alabama. Pence’s visit, which included briefings on the plans by Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit, and Stratolaunch, underscores the importance of commercial space in President Trump’s policy,

Virgin’s space plans may, at last, come to fruition

Virgin Galactic and its sister company Virgin Orbit may, at last, be on the brink of going operational.

Virgin Galactic has been working on a suborbital tourism service since 2004, when the Ansari X Prize was won by SpaceShipOne. 13 years, a fatal accident, and a redesign or two later, Sir Richard Branson has stated that SpaceShipTwo, which is designed to take paying passengers on suborbital jaunts, is three months from going into space and that his first space journey is six months away. Branson, however, has made many hopeful announcements along those lines and is many years behind schedule.

Virgin Orbit is a new company, recently spun off from Virgin Galactic, that will employ a modified aircraft called Cosmic Girl that would launch small satellites on the Launcher One rocket. Virgin Orbit is in its initial startup phase and there is no word as to when it will start operations.

Stratolaunch begins ground tests of the world’s largest aircraft

In the meantime, another company called Stratolaunch is beginning ground tests of its aircraft space launch system, the largest aircraft ever built by wingspan. The aircraft will eventually take a Pegasus XL rocket to altitude to launch payloads into low Earth orbit.

Another possible application may be to launch a crewed subscale Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser to orbit on a variety of commercial and scientific missions.

What about the California rocket tax?

One issue facing the Mojave Space Port and its tenants is the so-called California rocket tax, actually an extension of a transportation tax to space launches.

Will the imposition of that tax incentivize companies such as Virgin and Stratolaunch to move to another state? Mojave is not the only spaceport capable of handling horizontal Takeoff And Landing launch systems. Virgin could operate from any one of these ports, especially Ellington being developed near the Johnson Spaceflight Center in Texas. Texas is a low tax, low regulation state. Stratolaunch may have more difficulty moving because of the length of runway that its carrier aircraft requires.