SpaceShipTwo to Begin Powered Flights with “Starter” Motor, Not Full Engine

Jeff Foust has gotten Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides to clarify remarks he made last week in Qatar about the status of SpaceShipTwo’s engine status. Things aren’t nearly far along as it appeared:

Last Thursday the Wall Street Journal (via Zawya Dow Jones) reported from Doha, Qatar, that SpaceShipTwo engine development was nearly complete. “Within a month or two, we expect we’ll have an engine we can put in the [spacecraft] vehicle,” Virgin Galactic president and CEO George Whitesides said. That would put them on a path towards beginning powered flight tests by late this year and beginning commercial service by the end of this year. (In a brief conversation Saturday in Washington, where he was on a panel at the USA Science and Engineering Festival, Whitesides told me that the motor that will be ready for SpaceShipTwo soon will be a “starter” motor for short-duration powered tests, not the full motor.) [My emphasis]

Really? Seven and a half years after launching the program, they only have a “starter” motor for short duration test flights that will begin at the end of the year. On what basis does that give Virgin confidence that they can start commercial service by the end of 2013? I don’t get it.

In fairness, Whitesides did qualify his remarks. He told The Wall Street Journal said they nearly finished developing “an engine,” not “the engine”. And he said they “hope” Virgin Galactic can fly commercially by the end of 2013.

“I think we’re nearly there,” said Whitesides, a former NASA chief of staff. “Within a month or two, we expect we’ll have an engine we can put in the [spacecraft] vehicle.

“We would carry on that powered flight testing into 2013 for several months leading, eventually we hope, to the start of commercial operations towards the end of 2013,” he added. [My emphasis]

We’ll see what happens.



  • Oh wow, they’re so far behind. 18 months isn’t even realistic anymore

  • Nickolai:

    It would seem so. Based on what I’ve been hearing around Mojave, they still have quite a ways to go. But, we will see. Maybe this starter does have a direct path to a full-scale one.

    The basis meme on this is: They designed and built the spacecraft before they built the engine, which is doing things backwards. They stuck with a hybrid engine that was barely adequate for SpaceShipOne and simply does not scale up very well. They did this supposedly because it is safer, but a lot of the rocket experts I talk to don’t think that hybrids are necessarily safer than liquids. The decision has caused a lot of problems and delays; witness the cold flow explosion that killed three people, the lengthy development time, and the small number of full scale engine test firings.

  • Michael Turner

    You also have to wonder about the economical reusability of hybrids, even for suborbital. Isn’t this something like refurbishing a reusable solid-fuel rocket casing and ablative nozzle for each flight? What’s the turnaround time? If it’s long, that hurts the business case: you either need to have more than one craft ready to fly, or you need to run with a single craft and suffer less availability. Making it easy to swap out the solid+nozzle part of the engine might solve the availability problem to some extent. But a plug-and-play solid+nozzle design will, of course, add interfaces. More interfaces means more weight, more complexity and more points of failure. All this, for an experience that might not be a whole lot better than one of those tours where you go to Russia and get some black sky on a Russian fighter — for a small fraction of the price of the Virgin Galactic ticket.

  • ken

    Virgin Galactic is becoming impossible to hold my imagination and interest.

    By the time they FINALLY get something into sub orbit, Spacex, Sierra Nevada, and Bigelow will already be in orbit.

  • Robert Clark

    Good point Messier. This report says SpaceShipTwo could be single stage to suborbit by using hydrolox propellant:

    SpaceShipTwo could be single stage to suborbit says ESA firm.
    By Rob Coppinger
    on April 29, 2010 4:24 PM
    “Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo could be a single stage to suborbit vehicle using liquid chemical propulsion according to independent research carried out by a company that has been contracted by the European Space Agency for suborbital and hypersonic transport studies.”
    “… the UK firm came to the conclusion that the volume within which SS2 carries its solid rocket motor and nitrous oxide supply could equally hold a liquid chemical propulsion system capable of providing enough thrust for long enough for a horizontal take-off and ascent to 50,000ft and above without the need for WK2.”

    That is it wouldn’t need the expensive WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.

    Bob Clark

  • Marcus Zottl

    Bob, if I remember correctly this “study” has been brought up before, I’m not sure where, but I would guess it was in a discussion at the space fellowship.

    Anyway, the article is misleading. It talks about single stage sub-orbital capability of SST if using liquid propellants and in my opinion implies that this would be a suborbital flight to space. Later in the text it talks about a height of “50,000 ft and above” which is nowhere near of space. In fact, this is only about the height at which WKT is supposed to release SST.

    I have not seen the study myself, but at least the article is providing not really any interesting or relevant information.

  • Russ

    Is it impossible to put SpaceShipTwo on the proverbial back burner, refit SpaceShipOne for a return to service and then re-open the line using SpaceShipOne, just to get something going? Or would that take longer than working out how to get a proper engine for SpaceShipTwo?

  • Carolynne

    Take look at the only available picture of the latest test-firing of the rocket motor. The flame is a disorganised mess. Why have we seen no video of motor testing? One suspects that’s because the video (which was undoubtedly shot) is an embarrassment.

    The whole rocket motor programme has been shrouded in secrecy ever since three people were killed. The story used to be ‘we can’t talk about it because of ITAR restrictions’. Now they’ve gained an exemption from ITAR, so why not come out with the facts? There’s plenty of other organisations that have done work in the nitrous oxide hybrid field over the last decade, and the technology has moved on. I’m sure there’s help to be had out there to get the motor back on track.

    Virgin’s position is that they have great faith in Sierra-Nevada’s expertise, and that they are now working with a different contractor to the one (SpaceDev) that was at the centre of the fatal accident. As far as I can see, SpaceDev was owned by Sierra Nevada and was absorbed into the parent company, so it’s almost certainly the case that the motor is being built by the same people as ever. At what point do Virgin realise (or admit) that their rocket people can’t deliver?

    As Doug Messier points out, they designed the space craft before they had a motor, and they’ve done it backwards. Any major change in propulsion (including a more up-to-date hybrid) would mean the design and build of a new space craft. So they’re stuck with what they’ve got.

    Assuming that they can make a motor work well on the ground within the next twelve months, that’s still a long, long way to go in a flight-testing programme to be ready to carry passengers.

    Late 2013?? Not a hope in hades.

  • Paul451

    “By the time they FINALLY get something into sub orbit, Spacex, Sierra Nevada, and Bigelow will already be in orbit.”

    However, if the cost per person of buying a seat to orbit is, say, $10-15 million (cheap by Russian standards, $60m/seat), and the cost for buying a seat to “space” is $200,000… It’s a lot cheaper to buy 5 minutes than 5 days.

    I want there to be a continuum between vomit-comets and private moon bases. Parabolic flights, sub-orbital flights, transcontinental sub-orbital flights, orbital flights, LEO space stations, BEO flights, BEO bases. With the price scaling as you move up the ladder, and competition at every level (and between adjoining levels).