Branson Reiterates Plan to Fly By End of Year

Sir Richard Branson "high tens" with SpaceShip2 test pilot Mark Stuckey following the successful first powered flight of SpaceShipTwo. At left is Mark Stuckey's wife Cheryl and at right is Virgin Galactic President and CEO George Whitesides..  The spacecraft was dropped rom its "mothership", WhiteKnight2 over the Mojave, CA area, April 29, 2013 at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Sir Richard Branson “high tens” with SpaceShip2 test pilot Mark Stuckey following the successful first powered flight of SpaceShipTwo. At left is Mark Stuckey’s wife Cheryl and at right is Virgin Galactic President and CEO George Whitesides.. The spacecraft was dropped rom its “mothership”, WhiteKnight2 over the Mojave, CA area, April 29, 2013 at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Maria Bartiromo talks to Richard Branson about a number of subjects, including Virgin Galactic.

Q: You mentioned Virgin Galactic — what is your timing in terms of this program taking off?

A: I’ll be bitterly disappointed if I’m not into space by the end of the year. The rockets have now tested successfully. We’ve got three more rocket tests and then we should be up, up and away by the end of the year. That should be the start of the program. The space port’s ready. We are now in the last few weeks before finally embarking on the space program.

The “three more rocket tests” are likely the “handful” of additional powered flights that Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides has mentioned in recent months.

Parabolic Arc sources say that Virgin Galactic is operating under a Dec. 31 deadline to fly Branson into space from its primary backer, aabar Investments. Virgin Galactic denies it is under any deadline from aabar, which is owned by the Abu Dhabi government.

SpaceShipTwo has flown three times using rubber-nitrous oxide engines that burned for 16, 20 and 20 seconds apiece. On the final flight, the spacecraft reached 71,000 feet after being dropped from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship from about 50,000 feet.

Seven months have passed since that Jan. 10 flight. SpaceShipTwo has been modified to use a new nylon-nitrous oxide engine that burns smoother and will take the ship to a higher altitude. The goal is to get above 50 miles or 264,000 feet.

The flight tests will take place from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Branson’s flight, which is set to be the first commercial mission, will occur from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

  • Terry Stetler

    One wonders how long that nylon motor will be used before another redesign follows DC’s path to an ORBITEC liquid (vortex?) engine.

  • windbourne

    My guess is that once they are up and running, they will likely focus on that so that it can be used in the next craft.

  • Dave Salt

    The idea of going from first flight with a new engine to staring commercial operations in less than five months, especially given their historical rate of progress, suggests a rather dangerous rush to meet a business goal.

    I really do hope that they succeed because any major failure, especially if it involves fatalities, may be devastating for such a nascent industry.

  • Dennis

    My bet remains that Branson is up for some bitterly disappointment!

  • Linsey Young

    I’ve been bitterly disappointed travelling on Virgin Trains in the past. I reckon Mr Branson will be feeling likewise.

  • therealdmt

    I was thinking about this just yesterday — things have been quiet in terms of powered test flights, considering VG’s stated goal of being operational in December. There’s still some time to go, but there should be some action coming pretty soon now if they’re going to achieve that.

  • Paul_Scutts

    I wish VG all the best with their endeavour. Having to change the rocket motor fuel has had a real impact on their schedule. Hopefully they will be flying with paying customers in the new year.

  • Douglas Messier

    Virgin denies its under any schedule or financial pressures.

    But, the schedule they’ve laid out of a handful of additional test flights with a new engine in Mojave and getting Branson into space from New Mexico by the end of the year really doesn’t make a lot of sense on its own. Especially since it’s already mid-August.

    Ten years of effort and hundreds of millions of dollar spent, and they’re apparently down to trying to complete the flight test program in the next few months with a small number of flights then launching commercial service. It worries a lot of people I know.

  • Michael J. Listner

    I’m sure the sub-orbital industry in general is concerned. A major incident would ensure that the FAA would step in. Even though there is a moratorium on new regulation, if an incident were to occur they do have the authority to step in. Notably, Branson not only has the FAA watching but also the British government; they have jurisdiction as well since Branson/Virgin are British subjects. It’s likely cooler heads will prevail and no commercial flights will happen until any issues with the new engine are ironed out.

  • Carolynne Campbell

    The British Government has absolutely no jurisdiction over a private company operating in another country, as a Brit, I can assure you of that.
    As for the FAA, they are tasked to ensure the safety of non-involved third parties, such as innocent bystanders on the ground. They have no jurisdiction over the safety of the aircraft and its occupants. The FAA does not even require test-flights. There are no ‘cooler heads’ in any position to prevail. The show will go on.

  • Michael J. Listner

    Familiarize yourself with Title 51 Chapter 509 of the United States Code and Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty. Both give the FAA and the British government…as a lawyer I can assure you of that.

  • windbourne

    Personally, I think that some of this concern is unwarranted.
    The craft itself has been proven for flying and feathering (though only at low altitude).

    So, what is needed is the motor change (is a hybrid a motor or an engine?), and then simply test at altitude. The motor/engine is the same from POV of controls, etc. All that changed was that rubber went to nylon. It is still using NO. In addition, it sounds like they have worked heavily with the engine/motor for sometime, so they know the characteristics of them (though not at altitude).
    And with their having multiple crafts built, I suspect that they will do more than 3 tests. Since Branson and his son are going to fly it, I am guessing that they will fly more than 5.

  • ThomasLMatula

    I Agree. There is nothing like a high profile accident to get the regulators out hunting in packs for someone to blame, not to mention Congress trying to capitalize on it with hearings especially if a celebrity is involved. Just look at the impact on earlier aviation from the crashed that killed Knute Rockne in the 1930’s.

    Informed consent, balanced policy and any rational behavior tend to go out the window when you become part of the news cycle. Reporters who never heard of Virgin Galactic will be acting like experts all of a sudden, calling for an end to such “reckless” behavior and demanding that human spaceflight be left to the “experts” at NASA. Just recall what Three-Mile Island did to the Nuclear Industry once it became a media event and hundreds of reporters started looking for anything, and anyone, to add their byline to the story.

  • Douglas Messier

    To make the nylon engine work, they had to make the system more complicated. Inject methane at the beginning of the burn to make sure you don’t get a hard start. Then inject helium at the end of the burn to make sure that goes smoothly. This has involved installing wing tanks, new plumbing, etc. that hasn’t been tested with the previous engine. Any changes introduce new failure modes.

    What do mean, they have multiple crafts built? They’ve got one set of WK2 and SS2 that were originally intended as prototypes. At least that’s how Scaled looked at them. Virgin has been talking about how they have a second SS2 that’s 50 percent built. But, that’s been true for quite a while. They’re not going to go finish building a SS2 until they know how well this new engine performs in flight.

  • Kapitalist

    Oh, will he? My condolences, I’m so sorry.
    But afterwards the survivers could move on!

  • The Alchemist

    The pressure must be building quickly over there in their facilities right now. I’ve heard a lot of great things about the new propellant and how it performs. Personally, I feel like once they get up and going with a powered flight (which I believe will be this year), I think we will see a lot of progress fairly quickly.
    I’m really looking forward to seeing how this all plays out. I still have lots of hope and respect for this company and what they are trying to do.

  • Vladislaw

    With a backlog of over 130 flights, I believe they will want to clear a lot of that before a major overhaul.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    While not disputing your assertions, Michael, it would be helpful if you would point out to Carolynne just which sections of Chapter 509 invest that authority in the Secretary of Transportation and just how the Outer Space Treaty grants the British Government jurisdiction over the offshore activities of British nationals. Since she doesn’t live here, we should, perhaps, be charitable toward those not intimately familiar with our laws and administrative agencies.

  • Jeff Smith

    Doug, didn’t they keep saying how they would have “hundreds” of test flights and how this would be more like an airplane test program? Seems like someone has launch fever to me.

  • HyperJ

    Which backlog? VG’s? It doesn’t matter if they can’t get the engine to perform – or if it is too costly to operate.

    No, expect VG to follow SNC with a switch to a liquid engine before the year is over.

  • windbourne

    Oh, I thought that they had at least several instances of prototypes going. I know that on the 787 when Boeing had it going, that we had multiple instances, not just one (IIRC, we had 3). This allowed for making changes in several, while another was flying. And looking at the photos of their line, it appeared that they had multiple instances going.

    Interesting about the changes to the engine. I did not realize that (I have been busy elsewhere and not staying up as much on this). Thanx. And yeah, adding the rest of that, DOES make it a whole new engine.

    As such, 3 test flights would be….. weird. And I suspect that FAA will not allow them to start flying passengers on that few.

  • Douglas Messier

    The FAA has no requirements that they even fly first before granting a launch license.

  • Vladislaw

    I was refering to IF this engine can get it done… they will work it to reduce backlog before they make a switch ..

  • Michael J. Listner

    To put it simply, Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty grants a state continuing jurisdiction and responsibility over the outer space activities of its private citizens. Mr. Branson is a British subject and Virgin Galactic is a subsidiary of British company. The British government under Article VI of the OST has the continuing right and responsibility over Mr. Branson and Virgin Galactic’s operations in the United States as does the United States government through the FAA. Article VI grants the same responsibility and jurisdiction over any American private citizen performing space activities overseas, which would be delegated to the FAA.

    Chapter 509 distilled down gives the FAA the power to grant a launch license, without which Virgin or any other sub-orbital cannot fly. The FAA also has the power under Chapter 509 to revoke a launch license. Thus, if a serious incident were to occur, the FAA could revoke Virgin’s launch license pending an investigation, at which point they have limited authority to impose additional regulations. Also, I believe Virgin, as a British subject and through the authority of Article VI, was required to obtain a “launch license” from the British government. That too could be revoked if there is a serious incident and might be more difficult to get back than a launch license issued by the FAA.

  • Douglas Messier

    My sources indicate that the larger Newton engine was sized for SpaceShipTwo. However, there was a decision not to switch to a liquid engine for the spaceship.

    At the end of last year, the head of that program — Tom Markusic — bolted from Virgin Galactic. He’s now with Firefly Systems. Last I heard, Virgin was trying to sell off the tech and the engine team to Google to finish development of LauncherOne. I don’t know where that effort is at the moment.

    I don’t know what spurred Sierra Nevada’s reported decision to abandon the hybrid. The story seems to be that ORBITEC had a better solution. That makes sense if you can produce a reliable engine that can be used many times, then you don’t have to replace the two hybrids after each flight. That gets expensive.

    The SpaceShipTwo hybrid engine production would have been lucrative for Sierra Nevada. Now, instead of producing fuel grain for hundreds of large SpaceShipTwo engines that have to be replaced after flight, they’re reduced to producing a lot less fuel grain for two much smaller engines for far fewer flights.

    I don’t know whether that impacted on the decision or not, but it’s certainly a factor they would have to consider in the wake of Virgin Galactic’s decision to move to a nylon hybrid.

  • windbourne

    You should see what it takes to get avionics through FAA. Things like DO-178 can be sporting.

  • Chris Courtois

    “Branson Refuses to put Crack Pipe Down”

  • Douglas Messier

    There’s no certification of these vehicles, just a launch license. The FAA is pretty much limited to making sure the “uninvolved public” doesn’t get hurt by these things. There’s a moratorium until next year on safety regulations. Customers are flying under an informed consent regime. New Mexico has an even stricter law limiting lawsuits to gross negligence or intentional harm.

  • Carolynne Campbell

    Thanks for the clarification. I refer you to the discussion (below) between Doug and windbourne. Yes, after an incident, the FAA may take some action. AFTER an incident…
    I’ll look into the matter of a UK-issued launch license. I don’t believe such a license has been issued or applied for, but I’ll check.

  • su27k

    “Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty grants a state continuing jurisdiction and responsibility over the outer space activities of its private citizens.”: But if Doug is right SS2 won’t be able to reach outer space, they can’t make the Karman line…

  • Terry Rawnsley

    Carolynne, 51 U.S.C. 50903(c) grants the Secretary of Transportation (aka the FAA) the following broad authority:

    (c) Safety. In carrying out the responsibilities under subsection (b),
    the Secretary shall encourage, facilitate, and promote the continuous
    improvement of the safety of launch vehicles designed to carry humans,
    and the Secretary may, consistent with this chapter [51 USCS §§ 50901 et seq.], promulgate regulations to carry out this subsection.

    This allows the FAA to create practically any regulations necessary to carry passengers into space as well as protect people on the ground. There may presently be a moratorium on new regulations but the FAA has the legal authority to enact them whenever they decide that the time has come.

    I think that the application of Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty to Branson and VG by the UK government is more tenuous, especially for activities in a techologically advanced country like the U.S. where a legal regime concerning safety already exists.

  • windbourne

    If that is the case, then does not that destroy the case for Bigelow and others obtaining mineral rights on the moon, etc? After all, the idea is that the gov. are not allowed to do that, but that companies are not subject to the gov. regs.

  • Douglas Messier

    There’s a possibility Branson will fly by the end of the year but as part of the flight test program.

    Virgin has a problem. If it received a launch license from the FAA, the experimental permit under which it conducts flight tests would lapse. The company is trying to get a measure passed by Congress that would allow them to hold both a launch license and experimental permit at the same time. That would benefit not only Virgin Galactic but the industry as a whole.

    But, Congress has trouble passing even important legislation, and this is not high on anyone’s list of vital bills. There are also mid-term elections approaching in November, which means Congress is working even less than normal due to the need to campaign.

    So, it’s possible Virgin Galactic does three flights in Mojave and then a fourth with just Richard Branson aboard, probably from New Mexico. Holly has already dropped out, and they could argue they wouldn’t risk Sam on a flight test.

    Virgin could easily spin the Richard Branson, Brave Flight Test Engineer With the Right Stuff story. What Branson would actually contribute to the test other than his celebrity presence is unclear. Based on what I’ve read about his previous balloon stunts, I don’t get a sense he spent much time brushing on how to fly those things.

    Branson’s listed as a flight test engineer in Scaled Composites’ official flight summary of the Oshkosh demo flight in 2009. I doubt there’s any FAA regulations against him doing the same for a SS2 flight.That Oshkosh flight worked out great in terms of publicity for the company and burnishing Branson’s daredevil image. He had the flight suit on and the helmet and all that.

    I think they need to do more flight tests with the new engine before they put paying customers aboard. Three or four is insufficient with a new propulsion system. So, those could continue into 2015 while they try to get legislation through Congress.