How Virgin Galactic Controlled Press Coverage Of Launch

Aug 12, 2021

New Mexico taxpayers have invested over $225 million into Spaceport America and after many years of waiting, they finally saw Virgin Galactic CEO Richard Branson blast into space on July 11th. More flights will follow customers paying up to $450,000 for a seat. The event drew media from around the world. But their ability to cover the flight was severely curtailed.

Kevin Robinson-Avila of the Albuquerque Journal wrote a column about the lack of transparency and the importance of the Virgin Galactic’s work in New Mexico.

KEVIN ROBINSON-AVILA: The technology that developed has created other businesses that contribute to critical development for society and humanity in space. One business, for example, to fly using the same technology, rockets part of the way to space that carry satellites, and then shoots them into space at a much cheaper price to get those satellites up there. And satellites are critical for everything for society. Well, so they have another business that developing hypersonic planes that we use very similar technology developed in many respects, through Virgin Galactic, to fly people, for example, from California to Tokyo in two hours or New York to London in an hour. Those are critical technologies as we go forward, and they're coming out of everything that Virgin Galactic is doing, but the most visible aspect of what they're doing is the elite flight of space adventurers who could afford

KUNM: So why is this industry important for New Mexico's economy?

ROBINSON-AVILA: There’s already nearly 250 people working regularly at the Spaceport with a huge impact on the local economy down there and Moss Adams’ accounting firm study of what they could expect once Virgin Galactic starts operating regularly is $1 billion in accumulated impact in southern New Mexico just by 2025.

KUNM: Now, all that being said, let's talk about your experience actually covering Richard Branson's flight. Officials made it really difficult for you all to do your job. How?

ROBINSON-AVILA: They invited journalists from all over, including me, people came in from Europe and Asia and everyplace else. But when we got to the Spaceport, they herded us all into a specially designated area, totally separated from the 500 or so guests that were there to view the whole thing and be a part of the historic event. And what was incredibly surprising is they kept the press from leaving that area to interview anybody. We're down there to interview people, bring the thing to life, through what we write what we photograph, talk to all the people walking around. Elon Musk of SpaceX and Tesla was roaming around in there with his child. That's a golden opportunity for a reporter like me or any others to go right up and start interviewing Elon Musk. We couldn't do any of it because security guards kept us from leaving our specially designated area when we tried to, they herded us back. They wouldn't let us. The people that should be talking to us, and would want to be talking to us, they kept them from coming over and talking with us.

KUNM: So let's be clear, this is not you as a journalist whining that you couldn't get the story you wanted. Why should we be concerned there was very clearly a coordinated effort to control access on the story?

ROBINSON-AVILA: Because as Virgin Galactic portrays it to the world, they’re trying to democratize space. Well, we already know the business model limits how many people can actually do that. But at least for the world to share in ways that are direct in the experience, through people like me, through media, through reporters, through people covering it through, you know, that kind of democratization, to share the experiences, that makes it what Virgin Galactic wants to be. If they limit and restrict and not allow that independent coverage of it, then all you're getting are company images and sound bites and anything they want to show and present to the world. And that becomes a marketing promotional tool. That's not reporting on what's going on. That's not what reporters do. And if you limit what reporters do, then all you get is that marketing.

They have every right, and should actually be controlling the access to it for safety reasons, for security reasons. Anything can happen. They know what's best for how the public can view it, including the media. And so they're not only within the right, they're doing what they should be doing. If they want to limit our access to their own employees and their own executives because they have a marketing and public relations department, every company works that way and that’s perfectly understandable. But it's a $225 million public facility and events like this you have our own public officials and community members down there roaming around, and we would kept from interviewing them because Virgin Galactic controlled the entire coverage.

KUNM: Well, Kevin Robinson-Avila with the Albuquerque Journal, thank you so much for talking with us.

ROBINSON-AVILA: Thank you for interviewing me. Appreciate it.

The full interview airs at Friday, August 13, at 7 p.m. on New Mexico PBS.