So Sir Richard: How’s the Engine Coming?

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Another day, another prediction.

Sir Richard Branson has surfaced from the ocean depths just long enough to give us an update on his plans to conquer that other forbidding frontier, space. In the above video, he predicts SpaceShipTwo will be “ready to go” within 12-15 months. Although this is somewhat vague, he appears to be referring to the time when he will climb aboard the spaceship with his family and Burt Rutan in tow for Virgin Galactic’s first commercial suborbital tourism flight. (What else would anyone care about?) If so, how credible is his latest estimate to end all estimates?

Uncertain. This is an aggressive schedule given that the vehicle has not had a single powered flight, much less gone through the FAA’s licensing process. The estimate seems to contradict assertions by other Virgin Galactic officials of commercial flights beginning in late 2012 or early 2013. Have the recent SpaceShipTwo glide flights and speed up in the testing program given everyone confidence to move up the schedule?

Maybe. Or perhaps Sir Richard is simply continuing his tradition of making optimistic predictions. Take a ride with me, if you will, aboard Parabolic Arc’s Way Back Machine to find out just how far off he has been…

October 2004

When he announces his commercial space plans, Branson predicts Virgin Galactic will be flying commercial passengers by 2007 after spending about $108 million in development.

Not even in the same galaxy.

Late July 2009

Way off, but closer.

Late September 2010

“We just finished building SpaceShipTwo. We are 18 months away from taking people into space,” Branson told a business conference in Kuala Lumpur, adding that the fare will start at 200,000 dollars.

OK, that would put flights in March 2012, only two to five months off from the May-August time frame he’s now predicting. Given normal schedule slippages on these things, that’s not too bad.

There are positive signs that commercial flights could start in 2012. SpaceShipTwo made its ninth flight test just last week. And there has been a rapid ramp up in the flight rate over the last few weeks. Meanwhile, the carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, has been successfully flying for years now.

So, what might delay this freight train from barreling toward suborbital space? That would be RocketMotorTwo, the hybrid propulsion system which is the key to ensuring that SpaceShipTwo will go down in infamy of being the most expensive glider in history. So how is that going?

It’s going. Speaking at the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in Huntsville on Saturday, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said engineers are “making good progress.” Six tests have been conducted over the past two years, the most recent one in late March. Whitesides said the team got “good data” from the test firing.

Beyond that, the Virgin Galactic CEO offered few specifics about the engine test program or when SpaceShipTwo’s powered flights might begin. And although he showed three videos, none was of any of the engine tests. All-in-all, not much information.

This wasn’t always the case. Two years ago, Whitesides’ predecessor, Will Whitehorn, hosted the world premiere of this video during the ISDC in Orlando that showed the results of the first three engine tests in April and May 2009. Note how excited Sir Richard is in this video.

Since then, the number of engine hot firings have doubled from three to six. Yet, Virgin Galactic has been showing the same video clips of those initial firings. Test summaries have appeared on the Scaled Composites website, but they are not very detailed.

So, why the relatively silence from a media savvy Virgin Group that understands the PR value of showing a rocket engine firing?

Nobody knows for sure. However, people familiar with such things thought the engine firings in the initial video looked rough. (At least from what they could see of it through the enormous cloud of dirt and dust the engine threw up.) Soon after the video was released, stories circulated that engineers at Sierra Nevada Corporation were having a hard time scaling up the hybrid engine system from the small, X-1 sized SpaceShipOne prototype to its business jet sized successor. Oscillations sufficiently severe that nobody would want to ride the vehicle.

The stories have persisted and, if anything, have grown stronger. The latest one circulating in Mojave is that the test in March didn’t go well, and that the propulsion team has decided to abandon the hybrid rocket for a liquid system. There is also a confirmed report that Virgin Galactic has formed its own propulsion team and hired the former director of SpaceX’s Texas engine testing facility — and an expert in liquid propulsion — as a member of it.

On Saturday, I asked Whitesides whether they were considering dumping the hybrid system entirely. He reaffirmed that the company are focused on hybrids for now; liquid propulsion is something that would be consider down the road.

SpaceShipTwo has been built for a hybrid engine. A shift in propulsion could cause significant changes in the vehicle’s design. And it would certainly be a setback in the test schedule and make the odds of a commercial flight by next summer slim to none.

It’s always possible that engine development is coming along well and that VG and its contractors, for reasons of their own, have decided to remain in stealth mode. If so, then we might well see Sir Richard and his kin climb aboard SpaceShipTwo for the first commercial flight no later than next August.

His previous predictions about flight dates make the odds rather long. On the other hand, maybe he’s due. At some point, the first commercial flight will have to be 12-15 months (or 18-24 months) away. Just when that will be is a mystery.