Branson: Virgin Plans Reusable Replacement for SS2 Hybrid Engine

Sir Richard Branson speaks to a group of future astronauts at the FAITH Hangar of Virgin Galactic in Mojave, CA September 25, 2013 in Mojave, CA. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Sir Richard Branson speaks to a group of future astronauts at the FAITH Hangar of Virgin Galactic in Mojave, CA September 25, 2013 in Mojave, CA. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Over in Space News, Irene Klotz has an interesting Q&A with Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson that was apparently conducted during the gathering here in Mojave back at the end of September.  There are a few interesting bits of news in it.

A Reusable Replacement Engine

Branson says Virgin Galactic plans to bring down the $250,000 ticket cost by replacing the single-use hybrid engine with a reusable system.

“One of the things we’re doing here is trying to make everything much more affordable. So for instance, the initial rocket which I’ll be flying on to space will be thrown away afterward. Within six to nine months, we will be using rockets that will have capability of being used maybe up to 1,000 times, but definitely up to 100 times. That will bring the cost of space travel down dramatically.”

Unless they have somehow developed a reusable hybrid system (highly unlikely), this statement points to a liquid fuel replacement engine.

Program Costs at $400 Million

After admitting he’s bad at math, Branson estimates Virgin Galactic will have spent about $400 million on the program by the time of the expected first commercial flight next year. He added that the development cost has been split roughly 50-50 between the Virgin Group and Aabar Investments, a company owned by the government of Abu Dhabi.

Aabar’s investment in Virgin Galactic actually totals $390 million. The government-owned investment company has spent $390 million for a 37.8 percent share in the company as well as the development of the LauncherOne small satellite vehicle.

Richard Branson, Pilot?

Klotz asked whether Branson, “as a pilot”, would like to fly on a SpaceShipTwo test flight along with the Scaled Composites test crew.

“I would love to go on the test flight if I’m allowed to go. We will cross that bridge over the next month or two…It’s possible. I don’t know. We’re just debating it at the moment.”

This surprised me, because I had not heard that Branson has a pilot’s license. I would have expected the Virgin Group to have publicized such a fact before now. I’m wondering if Klotz got this wrong.

Pilot’s license or not, I believe it’s unlikely that Scaled would agree to such a move. Flight test is an inherently risky business, so there would be understandable concern about having the billionaire who is backing the project along for the ride. Scaled wants experienced test pilots and flight test engineers in the cockpit who are trained to deal with any problems that crop up.
In all likelihood, Branson flying on a SpaceShipTwo test flight would be accompanied by an enormous amount of advanced publicity. Scaled really hates that; it prefers to conduct flight test operations as quietly as possible. The company would probably be happiest if nobody knew about a test flight until it was already over.

Article Corrected: Aabar’s investment in Virgin Galactic actually totals $390 million, not $490 million as originally stated. Parabolic Arc regrets the error.