Virgin, Scaled Look to Resume Powered SpaceShipTwo Flights

Takeoff! (Credit: Douglas Messier)
WhiteKnightTwo takes off with SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Guy Norris at Aviation Week reports on Virgin Galactic’s progress toward resuming flight tests of SpaceShipTwo and moving on to commercial operations next year.

That process involves three steps: Scaled Composites completing a series of flight tests to meet contractual milestones; Virgin Galactic completing several flight tests of its own once it takes possession of SpaceShipTwo; and the FAA granting Virgin Galactic a launch license.

The official transfer of the SS2 from Scaled to Virgin will take place upon completion of key contractual milestones, Whitesides says. Although the main intention remains to demonstrate a fully powered suborbital flight with an apogee beyond the 100-km (62-mi.) “Von Karman” altitude limit that defines the boundary between the atmosphere and space, Virgin will be satisfied with two main criteria: “We’d like at a minimum for [Sealed] to demonstrate supersonic reentry and peak heating, if we can,” Whitesides says.

“What we are trying to do is balance two things,” he adds. “Scaled Composites’ contractual responsibility is to demonstrate the spaceship can achieve the requirements we set out at the beginning of the program. At the same time, we want to get into commercial service as quickly as we can, and the best way to do that is to basically do as much of it as we can as quickly as we can.” The company therefore plans over the next few test flights to “evaluate a few things,” Whitesides says.

These will include the readiness of Virgin Galactic’s operator’s license from the FAA, the technical progress of the actual test flights and the readiness of the spaceline’s own crews. “We think we’re in really good shape in that area now. We did a 4.5-hr. flight of the carrier aircraft this week and had no squawks at all,” he adds, referring to the high standard to which the Virgin Galactic team now operates the formerly Scaled-flown WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft. “We are less tied up in the number of flights and more [involved] in Scaled demonstrating those technical milestones. Then we will be at a point where [Scaled President] Kevin Mickey and I will discuss when to make that switchover,” Whitesides notes.

Gaining the operator’s license is largely a question of timing, according to Whitesides. “We made our original application in the summer of 2013 and the clock started once we hit the ‘sufficiently complete’ milestone in August 2013,” he says. “That’s the point at which the FAA’s 180-day [review period] started.” As it became clear that more test and development work was required, Virgin requested a voluntary toll “a short number of days before the 180 days expired,” he adds….

Following the latest glide flights, SS2 is expected to be fitted with the modified rocket motor and flown for a series of final test flights to complete the development effort. “We are close to taking the spaceship from Scaled, which will mark the close of the development program. Then we will be off to the races,” Whitesides says. Virgin Galactic may conduct “one or two more test flights here [at Mojave] and then one or two in New Mexico [at Spaceport America, near Las Cruces], or maybe more,” he adds. “We will see what is required and then go into commercial service.” While the company declines to forecast when this may be, Virgin founder Richard Branson said in a recent televised interview that commercial flights could start next February or March.

It’s an interesting situation. They are in the midst of a complex flight test program. SpaceShipTwo has only flown three times under power and reached only 71,000 feet. And they are about to start flight tests with a brand new engine that has never been used in flight, and whose installation required changes to SpaceShipTwo’s wings due to the addition of fuel tanks.

SpaceShipTwo has been in development for 10 years. But now, Virgin Galactic wants to begin commercial service as fast as possible. And it’s trying to balance that desire — which will not accommodate a large number of flights — and the need to fully test out the spacecraft and ensure a safe ride for Branson, his son Sam, and all the commercial passengers who will follow.

Those goals seem contradictory. Does not Virgin Galactic have safety as its North Star? Hasn’t Branson said he wants to make sure SpaceShipTwo is perfectly safe before exposing his son to the risk of spaceflight? How exactly does the remaining flight test program accomplish that?

I’m reminded of what legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager wrote in his self-titled autobiography:

“By definition, a prototype was an unproven, imperfect machine….Some defects were obvious….But other problems…might be discovered late in a program, only after hundreds of hours of flying time. The test pilot’s job was to discover all the flaws, all the potential killers…Testing was lengthy and complicated, resulting in hundreds of major and minor changes before an aircraft was accepted in the Air Force’s inventory.”

Even counting what has been learned through SpaceShipTwo’s previous three powered flights and 31 glide flights, will the remaining test program find all the potential flaw in the spacecraft? Will SpaceShipTwo be sufficiently safe to start loading billionaires aboard for commercial flights?

I guess time will tell. What I do know is that the flight test program is making a lot of people in Mojave very nervous. I pray their fears are unfounded.

  • Hemingway

    Where did Jim Tighe of Scaled Composites go? This is a crucial time with the upcoming test flights.

  • ThomasLMatula

    have a right to be very nervous. It was the same combination of rush to fly that was responsible for many famous aviation disasters from the R101 Airship to the De Havilland Comet to the Challenger.

    But what is really amazing to me is that anyone is still able to regard the Ansari X-Prize as a success given it was the kludges and shortcuts, including a very short flight test program, used by Scaled Composites to win it that placed SpaceShipTwo in this position of being both an “X-Craft” and commercial vehicle. Clearly, as a result of the Ansari X-Prize, not enough was known about the impacts of scaling up the SpaceShipOne design and its engine to meet the needs of a commercial vehicle to justify the rush to design SpaceShipTwo and VG has been paying the price every since.

  • Douglas Messier

    I agree. You identified a lot of the problems with Ansari X Prize. It was a giant leap when steady process was needed on things like the engine.

    I would add hubris to the equation. Burt came out of Ansari X Prize having hit a home run in his first space project. He didn’t know what he didn’t know, but he thought he knew more than he did. Burt had a lot of misplaced faith in the engine, not having much experience with rockets.

    What makes the 2007 explosion so tragic is not that a tank blew during cold flow but that Rutan and his team didn’t understand what they were dealing with. If they had, they would never have had 11 people standing around the test stand. Blown engines and tanks are not unusual in this business. But, nobody needs to die as a result.

    There was another factor, too. Paul Allen wasn’t in it for the long haul. Burt wanted to continue flying SpaceShipOne (although with passengers, not in flight test), but Allen was very happy to accept an offer to donate it to the Smithsonian. He was fine with taking the X Prize money, the tax write-off for the donation, and to sell the rights to Branson. .

    Those extra flights would have provided the expertise needed to really understand the engine and how the ship performed. That would have been extremely valuable to building a follow-on vehicle.

    Left to his own devices and with a partner with little technical understanding in Branson, Burt could do whatever he wanted. He went ahead with a follow-on vehicle he really wasn’t prepared to build. Nobody could tell him no, although some people tried. He rejected efforts to switch to a liquid engine. It was just too complicated for him.

  • twizell

    There is another interesting angle if you read between the lines of recent reports of the future plans for Virgin to roll out the current WK2 and SS2 built by Scaled and then later to replace them with the second airframe and SS2 being built by Virgin themselves. The current airframes are effectively prototypes rather than version 2.0’s. I don’t think prototypes are ever used in commercial airlines, they are usually (always?) mothballed after testing with the v2.0’s making it into commercial operations. To me this feels like what Doug has alluded to on earlier occasions that there might be an accelerated set of test flights to get RB into space to enable the operation to be accounted a ‘success’. I have no doubt that a public who lost interest in Apollo after a couple of flights would soon lose interest in tourist suborbital flights. So it would be a characteristic PR strategy to launch a symbolic flight to account the program a success when in reality it is necessary to wait until the v2.0 craft are built before going into proper commercial operations. Several years ago when I started following this I asked myself the question ‘will this succeed or fail’. Now I’m far more of the opinion that this is ‘too big to fail’ so the media and public perception must be carefully managed in order to protect a variety of important stakeholders, commercial and political.

  • Vladislaw

    If Allen wasn’t in it for the long haul during the SS1 days .. what brought him back in with the stratolauncher… wasn’t that always the end game?

  • Douglas Messier

    He didn’t stay with SpaceShipOne/SpaceShipTwo for the long haul.

    Stratolaunch is very different. It was something Rutan had in mind for a very long time. Runway 12/30 was strengthened in anticipation of it years before the project was announced.

  • Vladislaw

    Okay, I understand now. Do you believe he would have stayed with it if the prize would have never came forward or was it always just to see if it could be done?

  • ThomasLMatula

    A quote from Jeff Foust’s review of Paul Allen’s book.

    “At the time, Allen said he had a relatively narrow goal: “I wanted to do something in rocketry that no one had done before.”


    “Allen notes in the book that their effort was not originally designed to win the prize: in fact, the original vehicle design was apparently only intended to carry a single person. Only when the Ansari family donated the money in 2002 needed for the “hole-in-one” insurance policy that would fund the prize purse did Scaled modify the vehicle to carry three people as required by the prize rules.”

    So if you believe Paul Allen is telling the truth, and I do, the answer is Yes, SpaceShipOne would have flown into space even if there was never an Ansari X-Prize. As Paul Allen states in the book quote above it was only at the last minute when the X-Prize Foundation actually had the money to pay the prize that winning it became a goal of SpaceShipOne.

  • ThomasLMatula

    I tend to agree. I think that although VG once did have the goal to fly thousands into space now they are only looking for a solution that will allow them to satisfy the 500 or so ticket holders and once they fly them, perhaps a 100 flights or so of SpaceShip Two over the next 3-4 years, they will shut things down and declare victory…

  • Carolynne Campbell

    That is probably the best-case scenario. Where does that leave New Mexico?

  • ThomasLMatula

    When I worked on the task force for the original Southwest Regional Spaceport in New Mexico in the 1990’s I did my dissertation on commercial spaceports (1994) and published several articles on using spaceports as engines for economic development as a result, all of which I sent them. When on the Task Force I repeatedly reminded them they should never focus only on a single customer, but focus instead on attracting a multiple of sub-orbital firms that could make use of the excellent flying weather and empty airspace for research and development as well as operational flights.

    I also documented for them that the markets for sub-orbital science, research and education are far larger than for space tourism and that since the Physical Science Lab at New Mexico State University had been serving these needs since the 1940’s they had a huge comparative advantage in pursuing the markets. But instead they choose to follow the space tourism hype, first for the VentureStar, then the X-Prize Cup, then after that VG… Hopefully when VG is gone they will dust off those old reports and market white papers and salvage Spaceport America. As the late Pete Conrad once told the Task Force its the ideal place for launching rockets.

    But it will be up to them to move beyond VG and I see the flight testing of SpaceX’s Grasshopper and UP Aerospace flight more indicative of the future of Spaceport America. I hope that XCOR will also join them. Midland is not really the best place to fly rocket planes from and I expect they will quickly learn its limitations probably outweigh the money they are getting.

    BTW one of the things that was well document in those studies from the 1990’s was how ideal Spaceport America was for a TSTO system like SpaceX is now developing. This was shown even in the 1970’s when it was under consideration for the original TSTO version of the Space Shuttle. It would actually be far safer, more reliable and cheaper to fly from Spaceport America than any coastal site because of the numerous recovery and abort options for the first stage. Perhaps SpaceX will run across some of those old documents when working with the spaceport.

    Incidentally the same would apply to Stratolaunch with clear launch corridors existing for polar, ISS and Easternly launches from the airspace over WSMR. And if anything went wrong with the booster they could just drop it and the wreckage wouldn’t even be noticed among the 70 odd years worth of rocket wreckage littering the range 🙂

  • Carolynne Campbell

    That’s very informative, Thomas. Especially in the light of what Stu Witt had to say on the subject:

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, the proximity of the railroad was a factor in its selection and there is fiber optic cable the runs along the railroad. Also another factor he overlooks is there is a major natural gas pipeline running near the railroad. In the 1990’s we estimated a plant connected to that pipeline could be built for around $100 million that would produce all the cryogenics needed on site for the DC-1 follow on to the DC-X and/or VentureStar.

    Also the mountains to the east provide a gentle slope to 7,000 plus ft over looking WSMR, ideal for a rail launch or Maglev system. And of course the world leader in supersonic rocket sleds is WSMR. They currently have a Mach 8+ sled running. Of course no one cares about how loud low altitude sonic booms are at the range 🙂

    So it would be a great place to built a cargo launch system for payloads that are not acceleration sensitive, for example a LOX to LEO supply system. And did I mention the work done on laser launched systems at WSMR? Again its ideally sited to support such a system with the dry high altitude air.