Virgin Galactic’s Whitesides: We Don’t Do Schedules…Anymore

Cosmic Log’s Alan Boyle talks to new Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides about the company’s plans for suborbital flight. Eventually, THAT question came up again:

Q: I’m sure anytime you talk about what you’re doing, people ask you when the rides will become available. What are you able to say about how the time frame is developing? What’s the latest?

A: It’s funny, Alan, you’re the first person to ask me that question … in the last 10 minutes. As you know, we do not have a public schedule because we want our flight testing to be focused on building a safe vehicle. But as I think others have expressed, and certainly Richard has expressed, our hope is to get to space this coming year. That’s obviously dependent on flight test. We’ll go into commercial operation as soon as we can, and as soon as we’re able to work with the FAA to get a commercial license. So far, things are progressing well. We’re very excited about the glide test results — we’ve just had another fantastic flight. The vehicle is flying very well. So … so far, so good.

Yep, safety.This thing’s going to safer than a couch in a safe at Fort Knox before Richard Branson and his family climb aboard with designer Burt Rutan in tow.

It’s a smart move. All of Virgin Galactic’s previous estimated flight dates have long ago disappeared in the rear-view mirror. If this were a publicly-funded NASA project, the delays and cost increases would be the subject of no small amount of criticism. Being a privately funded project that is considered a novelty shields the project from most of that scrutiny.

So do Virgin’s well choreographed media events. In October, Branson turned a runway dedication at a half-finished spaceport in the middle of nowhere with a behind schedule spacecraft that’s never flown under power into a major triumph. Imagine what they’ll be able to do once they actually fly some celebritynauts aloft.

The delays do raise some deeper issues, however. Virgin Galactic is talking up the safety of its system, yet it will require “informed consent” waivers from clients that will exempt the company from lawsuits except in the event of gross negligence. How safe is safe? Especially when you’re dealing with suborbital spaceflight, something that has been limited to a handful of highly-skilled test pilots. There have only been 17 suborbital flights in history (two Mercury, 13 X-15, and two SpaceShipOne). One of those flights killed X-15 pilot Mike Adams.

Another question involves NASA’s decision to rely upon the private sector for future flights, a policy that Whitesides helped to implement during his brief stint at the space agency. SpaceShipTwo is running far behind original estimates. SpaceX is about two years  behind its original schedule on COTS flights. Can we expect to see similar delays in the future in the CCDev program? And what would be the ramifications?