NewSpace 2010: Virgin Galactic’s Non-Update Update

Virgin Galactic’s Enrico Palermo closed out Day 2 of the NewSpace 2010 conference with a half-hour presentation in which he said very little new and took no questions from attendees.

Palmero gave an update on the project, showed a video of a recent crewed flight of SpaceShipTwo, and talked generally about Virgin Galactic’s role in the emerging space tourism industry. But overall, not much of anything really new. Certainly nothing you couldn’t read on the website.

He largely skipped over one item that is on a lot of people’s mind: SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid engine. Palmero showed a picture of a test firing done last April and said testing is ongoing under the direction of the Sierra Nevada Corporation. He then moved on to the next slide.

According to the Scaled Composites blog, there have been only four full scale hot firings of the engine over the entire five plus years since they started the project. Last May, Virgin Galactic did release a brief video of three tests done in the spring; since then, there’s been only one hot firing (at least that they have publicized) and no videos released.

Palermo’s presentation will do nothing to silence speculation in Mojave that engine development is lagging significantly.The possibility that Virgin Galactic has a spaceship that does not yet have a viable engine will continue to be the subject of much discussion until there is proof to the contrary.

It is difficult to know for sure, of course. However, it seems highly likely to me that — given Virgin Galactic’s PR saavy — we would have seen more YouTube video of engine tests if things were going well. Masten, Armadillo, SpaceX and ATK have had no trouble releasing videos of their tests.

Palmero’s talk was the last of the day. As it ended, he walked away from the podium without taking questions. The moderator declared the session closed, and workers immediately started removing tables and chairs to prepare for a $125/plate gala dinner that would start two hours later.

The moderator told me that Palermo would be available later for questions. However, I was not able to find him before he left the hotel. So, my bad.

It’s all a bit disappointing. The conference spent 75 minutes earlier in the day on a panel discussion about orbital debris cleanup and asteroid mining. No offense to anyone who spoke today, but these industries don’t really even exist yet. This discussion was mostly about what could be done if certain things happened.

Virgin Galactic has a real project in testing. Thirty minutes crammed in at the end of a day with no time for questions didn’t seem to quite do it justice somehow. This appeared to be more of a PR opportunity for Virgin Galactic than a chance for attendees — who paid good money to be here — to learn anything new.