By Alesandra Dubin Posted December 8, 2009, 5:22 PM EST
LOS ANGELES Angelenos often grumble when an invitation requires them to travel east or west of La Brea Avenue—but this event was so large-scale, and so compelling, that it successfully drew not only Los Angeles residents, but folks from all over the globe out into the desert in the midst of severe weather warnings.
Virgin Galactic, a division of Richard Branson's Virgin Group dedicated to space travel, unveiled the world's first commercial manned spaceship, known as SpaceShipTwo, at the Mojave Air and Spaceport 100 miles east of L.A., on a day of freezing temperatures and dangerously high winds. Virgin Galactic marketing head Susan Newsam oversaw the event, tapping Bay Area-based Group Delphi to produce it, and working closely with the spaceport's Bob Rice on operations.
The crowd of about 800 international guests—press, future astronauts, accredited space travel agents, and V.I.P.s—convened in the desert for the event, which began with a press conference announcing the first commercial manned spaceship and describing its abilities in a giant clear-span tent from Town & Country. While winds gusting to about 70 miles an hour caused the speakers and lighting fixtures to sway alarmingly overhead (but ultimately remain secure), major players in the spaceship's development discussed its significance. Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson was among the speakers, as were governors Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Bill Richardson of New Mexico, whose states have contributed support to the project. A short Q&A session followed the conference—but Branson suggested after the third question that it ought to wrap up, acknowledging the impatience of the bundled-up crowd in the unheated tent.
Afterward, as night fell along with a few light snowflakes, the crowd moved outside and assembled in a large semicircle. Then, as giant space-theme icons (part of Virgin Galactic's branding) on scrim-like panels supported by trusses lining the runway lit up, matched to the sound of a space anthem from British DJs Above & Beyond, the new spaceship emerged from the darkness along the airstrip. Branson invited the two governors to christen the ship—named the VSS Enterprise—by dashing bottles of champagne on its nose.
Notwithstanding the considerable awe over the sleek new ship, many guests quickly moved inside for an after-party that included a set from the DJs, plus an ice bar hosted by Absolut and the Swedish IceHotel. Along Came Mary catered buffets of Mexican and Italian favorites, with many guests opting for bowls of corn chowder to warm their hands. (Special telescopes supplied by Ron Dantowitz of the Clay Observatory were on hand to view the night sky—but were not usable because of the clouds.)
Two domes adjacent to the main press conference tent were planned for use during the party, but one was closed as part of a weather contingency, and many guests were directed to the main tent; the domes were rated safe at 40 miles per hour, and the tent at 70. “There's no regular pattern to [wind in Mojave], so it's impossible to predict it,” said Group Delphi senior account director and executive producer Dave Salinger. “Worst case scenario, we were planning for around 40 miles per hour—the wind ended up coming in above 70 miles an hour. It threw everything it had at us.” Moving down the list, plan C would have involved taking guests instead to a nearby hangar set with 600 chairs, and plan D would have been to cancel the event altogether.
Salinger noted that for the first four days of the installation, which began on November 30, the weather was “absolutely spectacular: clear, no wind, warm.” And by the time the crew was loading out Tuesday morning, they noted that a sign for a local McDonalds had been blown completely apart in the relentless wind.