SpaceShipTwo Sports New Look as Whitesides Reaffirms 2014 Commercial Launch Date

Credit: Douglas Messier
Credit: Douglas Messier

UPDATE: The reflective coating is Kapton. Virgin Galactic just Tweeted it. There is a flight this morning.

SpaceShipTwo was outside on the ramp at the Mojave Air and Space Port on Monday, slung under its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft and sporting some blast-from-the-past modifications that appear to be right out of the Eisenhower era.

Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides has been in the United Kingdom, where he said that the company is “on track” for the start of commercial spaceflights despite the relatively slow pace of SpaceShipTwo flight test program.

The inboard ends of SpaceShipTwo’s tail booms are covered with a silver reflective coating that has an appearance similar to mylar aluminum. The booms now look like chrome tail fins used on 1950’s automobiles, which is actually kind of a snazzy look.

The coating is probably there to reflect heat from SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid engine. Its purpose might be similar to that of the radiators on the inside of the space shuttle’s cargo bay doors.

When SpaceShipTwo will fly under power again is uncertain. In early November, Whitesides predicted another flight in about a month’s time — which would be about now. My guess is they probably have until next Friday (Dec. 20) to get a test flight in. At that point, workers will begin to scatter for what for many of them will be a two-week holiday break.

SpaceShipTwo has flown under power twice, the first time at the end of April and again at the beginning of September. The first gap in flights was four months, the current one is three months and counting.

Meanwhile, Whitesides addressed the ninth annual space conference at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Harwell, England. The highlights of the talk include:

  • Virgin Galactic expects the FAA to issue an operator’s license for SpaceShipTwo in the first quarter of 2014;
  • Commercial flights will begin out of Spaceport America in New Mexico sometime in 2014;
  • LauncherOne will begin operations in late 2015;
  • Engineers are making significant headway on LauncherOne, and an update on progress will be issued in a few weeks.

I’m skeptical of Virgin Galactic’s ability to begin commercial service next year for several reasons. One, the company has never been correct in any of its previous predictions, so they have a poor track record.  At some point they have to be right, but there are factors pointing in the other direction.

One issue is the slow pace of flight test. Months go by while engineers and technicians address issues that cropped up during test flights and make modifications to the vehicle so it can perform better. Eventually, the pace will pick up, but it’s difficult to predict when that will occur.

If they can increase the flight test tempo in the months ahead, maybe they will fly commercially by the end of next year. If not, it could be a while. For the sake of proper testing and safety, one would expect them to conduct many powered flights — including multiple ones into space — before putting Richard Branson and his family aboard for the first commercial mission.

Finally, multiple sources here in Mojave have told me there are on-going efforts to develop alternatives to the underpowered nitrous/oxide rubber hybrid engine they have been using to test SpaceShipTwo. I have personally witnessed tests of what sources say are alternative engines.

Sources indicate there are serious doubts about whether the current engine can get SpaceShipTwo all the way to a 100 km altitude with a payload. They also tell me it’s uncertain when alternative engines will be ready for flight test.

So, count me as a skeptic until I see the pace of flight test pick up and I hear something else about the engine.