Branson: I’ve Stopped Counting the Days to Commercial SpaceShipTwo Flights

Will Whitehorn gives a pat on the back to Richard Branson as he greets Virgin Galactic ticketholders during the Oshkosh air show in 2009.

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

Eight years after launching the SpaceShipTwo program, Virgin Group Founder Richard Branson is beginning to sound a bit impatient with progress even as the first powered tests of the 8-person space plane appear imminent. The Associated Press reports from Warsaw, Poland:

He says it will be at least another 12 or 18 months before the Virgin Galactic venture can offer paid space travel to adventurers….

Asked about Virgin Galactic, Branson said he has “stopped counting” days to the launch because it gets delayed “to the next year, to the next year.”

His frustration with the pace of the program is understandable. When he announced the project in 2004, he expected to be flying within three or four years. By the end of next month, the SpaceShipTwo project will have matched the time between President John F. Kennedy’s proposal that America send men to the moon and the first landing by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11.

Virgin officials say they are planning to begin powered test flights of SpaceShipTwo at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California by the end of this year. The tests will begin with a “starter” motor, which will be a smaller version of the ship’s hybrid engine. Plans call for a series of flights with larger motors and longer burns throughout next year as well as licensing by the Federal Aviation Administration.

If all that goes well, commercial flights would begin by the end of 2013.  Last month, New Mexico Spaceport Authority Executive Director Christine Anderson told the authority’s Board of Directors that she expected commercial flights at Spaceport America to begin in February 2014. Branson and his family are set to take the first flight.

Branson’s remarks in Poland were not his only comments on SpaceShipTwo in recent weeks. He has mentioned the program in a couple of posts on his personal blog, where he sounded much more upbeat.

The test flights of our vehicles have gone incredibly well so far and we want to keep  it that way. Our amazing engineers and pilots are preparing right now for the first powered spaceship flight, which should be followed with a fairly quick build up to Virgin’s first proper step across the final frontier.! [sic]

In that same post, he published photos showing the installation of SpaceShipTwo’s nitrous oxide tank and hinted at improvements to come.

These shots show the biggest single component of our new hybrid rocket motor, the main nitrous oxide tank, being installed into the spaceship. Already, our system’s design, including this safe and non-toxic motor, means that SpaceShipTwo is one of greenest manned spaceships ever to have flown. We’re now looking at some exciting future plans which could radically lower each flight’s remaining environmental footprint. More on that in due course!

Branson is not specific about what could “radically lower each flight’s remaining environmental footprint.” It is possible that he is referring to another type of hybrid engine that might burn cleaner than the one currently being tested.

The British billionaire also might be referring to a liquid-fuel engine that will eventually replace SpaceShipTwo’s partially reusable hybrid motor, as Aviation Week reported in July.

LauncherOne will be powered by a two-stage, liquid-fueled rocket, now in initial development by Virgin Galactic. The same rocket also is intended to ultimately replace the non-reusable RM2 hybrid motor that will power the SS2 to suborbit, Virgin says.

LauncherOne is an air-launched rocket to be carried aloft by WhiteKnightTwo that is designed to place small satellites into orbit. Virgin has hired a team of propulsion experts in Mojave to work on LauncherOne. The company also has signed a sublease to use the Firestar Technologies/Typhon Labs test facilities at the Mojave spaceport.

The benefits of moving from a hybrid to a liquid fuel engine are not just environmental. The solid part of the hybrid motor must be replaced after each flight. This approach is time consuming, costly and results in a lower flight rate. A reusable liquid-fuel rocket would allow technicians to refuel the vehicle and turn it around relatively quickly and inexpensively for another flight.  XCOR is taking this approach with its Lynx suborbital space plane.

All this activity is taking place as Virgin Galactic takes over more responsibility for the SpaceShipTwo project and its future. The company recently bought out Scaled Composites’ 30 pecent share of The Spaceship Company, the joint venture that was set up to manufacture WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo vehicles. Virgin Galactic now has full ownership of the company, with Scaled remaining on board through the test program:

The completion of the acquisition comes as Virgin Galactic and Scaled begin to plan the handover of the SS2 development program to Virgin Galactic, with Scaled remaining fully committed to the final portion of the WK2 and SS2 test flight programs prior to Virgin Galactic commencing commercial operations.

Whenever SpaceShipTwo does fly commercially, it will carrry space tourists and scientific experiments on suborbital flights. Branson also says that Virgin Galactic might try to break Felix Baumgartner’s new skydiving record. The dare devil recently jumped from nearly 24 miles as part of the Red Bull Stratos project.

The technology of space travel and exploration is moving forwards every day, and we look forward to taking on new challenges as we move closer towards commercial space flight. Who knows, the next record leap could one day be from Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.

Haven’t had a challenge myself for a while. Could be fun for Virgin to give Red Bull a run for their money.

That would be pretty awesome to see. But, first thing’s first. Let’s see some powered flights.