Branson: I’m Flying to Space By Late Summer

Video Caption: British billionaire [Richard] Branson talks with his typical smile and ultimate optimism. But his body language tells a different story.

Seen at second Dubai Government Summit 2014, February 10.

Editor’s Note: Another sort of firm prediction from the Virgin Galactic founder, delivered in a not very reassuring manner. Branson has been flawless in making inaccurate predictions so far. At some point, he has to be right, but has that time finally arrived?

Maybe. And it depends.

Confused? No problem. I’ll explain. Let’s first look at where things stand here in mid-February to see if this latest schedule makes any sense.

SpaceShipTwo has made three powered flights thus far. In the most recent test, SpaceShipTwo burned its hybrid nitrous oxide-rubber engine for 20 seconds and reached a speed of Mach 1.4 and an altitude of 71,000 feet. That left SpaceShipTwo about 257,084 feet short of internationally recognized boundary of space, which is 328,084 feet (100 km or 62.1 miles).

With a trio of successful flight tests, one would expect to see SpaceShipTwo back in the sky again soon. The pilots would light the candle longer, fly ever higher and faster, push the outside of the envelope, pull it back at the very last possible moment, and do all that other Right Stuff…uh…stuff that they do.

That would be fun to watch. But, I wouldn’t expect it to happen anytime soon.

My sources tell me they have gone as far as they can with the version of the nitrous oxide-rubber engine they have used in flight tests. Fire that engine longer, and the resulting oscillations and vibrations would be very bad.

In short, they need an engine that won’t shake SpaceShipTwo and its occupants to pieces. Ground tests have been conducted on one, sources say. However, it’s going to take a while to install it. How long? Nobody really knows. There were four month gaps after the first two powered flights that used the same engine design. So, it will probably take longer than that.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that SpaceShipTwo doesn’t fly until sometime early in summer, which begins on June 21. Now, what sort of flight test program would be needed? Would they repeat captive carry and glide tests first, or would they go directly to powered flights? How many tests would be needed? And is the new engine the answer to their prayers?

Branson is hoping to fly in late summer, which ends on September 22. A late June start wouldn’t leave a lot of time for many tests, especially not with the required gaps in flights to analyze data, replace the expendable hybrid engine, and make any required modifications to the ship and its propulsion system. If SpaceShipTwo doesn’t start flying again until later in the summer, the September deadline becomes impossible.

Given that safety is the North Star of Virgin Galactic’s operations, it’s hard to believe they would risk the boss and his two children on the first commercial flight without a lot of powered flights first. Just how many flights are planned is unknown, and the ultimate answer will depend upon how the tests go.

On the other hand, flying SpaceShipTwo is not cheap. And Branson has risked his life repeatedly — and almost lost it several times  — in a series of balloon adventures aimed at promoting the Virgin Group. So, he might be willing to take the risks that come with a shortened flight test program. But, would he be willing to risk the lives of his children?

Late September will mark the 10th anniversary of Branson announcing the SpaceShipTwo program. Flying just before or on that date would make for good public relations. Not flying into space by then would be very bad PR. But, better bad press than an unsafe flight. After a decade, what would another 10 days — or 10 weeks — matter if they can fly safely?

There is a further complication in terms of meeting the late summer goal. After completing the flight test program in Mojave, Virgin Galactic will need to transfer the ship and flight operations lock, stock and barrel down to Spaceport America in New Mexico where Branson’s flight is set to take place.

Just moving and getting everything set up will be a significant logistical challenge. They would need to do a number of flight tests at the new spaceport to get the routine down. I’ve seen how flight test operations are conducted here in Mojave, and it’s a big production that involves a good number of the airport staff in support roles. All those procedures need to be carefully worked out and practiced at the new facility. Ground equipment and systems need to be tested. Given that NBC’s TODAY Show will broadcast Branson’s flight live on national television, they won’t want any mistakes.

Finally, there’s the question of whether Branson and his family will be able to reach space as the company has defined it for nearly a decade. Virgin Galactic has been promising customers flights above 100 km (62.1 miles) up to a maximum of 110 km (68 miles).

In his latest book, “Branson: Behind the Mask,” Tom Bower claims they don’t have an engine yet that is capable of reaching the 100 km (62.1 mile) boundary.  I’ve been hearing similar claims from reliable sources here in Mojave for quite some time. Bower also claims the engine is unsafe, which is a concern I’ve also heard from other engineers who don’t like nitrous oxide and hybrids.

There is another definition of space — used by the U.S. Air Force to award astronaut wings to X-15 pilots in the 1960’s — that places the boundary at 50 miles (80.5 km).  Virgin Galactic might have an engine capable of getting SpaceShipTwo above that altitude, although it hasn’t been flight tested yet.

Will Virgin use the U.S. Air Force standard, surpass it in SpaceShipTwo, and declare victory?  It might. It’s not clear what the fallout would be among customers. Some might be upset by a lower altitude and less time to float around in the cabin. Others might not care very much.

Rhetorically, Virgin Galactic officials appear to have prepared the way for such a redefinition. The company is fond of mentioning how it plans to quickly send more people into space than the 500 plus astronauts who have traveled there in the last 53 years.

That number of astronauts over that period has an asterisk next to it. If you include all the X-15 pilots who flew above 50 miles (80.5 km), the number of astronauts is 543. Remove the X-15 pilots who didn’t make it 62 miles (100 km), and that number shrinks by seven to 536.

Virgin Galactic officials used to make that distinction in their public appearances. At some point over the last year, they stopped doing so and simply went with the higher number that includes all the X-15 pilots who were awarded astronaut wings.

So, what’s the bottom line here? Can they meet the late summer deadline? Maybe, but it would be very tight. Would that be safe? Maybe not. Will Branson and his kids actually reach space? Depends how you define it.

In the meantime, Virgin Galactic has some dead air to fill. Look for the company to crank up its publicity machine in the months ahead with announcements and events designed to show progress and to keep its media partner, NBCUniversal, and the rest of the press busy filing stories. Meanwhile, engineers will be working quietly behind the scenes to try to meet Branson’s latest deadline.