Continuing our look back at 2014, we review progress at Virgin Galactic. While the loss of SpaceShipTwo on Oct. 31 understandably dominated the headlines, there were a number of other newsworthy developments at the company last year.
On January 10, SpaceShipTwo conducted its third powered flight using a hybrid rubber-nitrous oxide engine. Scaled Composites pilot Mark Stucky and Virgin Galactic pilot David Mackay took the ship to 71,000 feet after firing the engine for 20 seconds. They tested the feather system during a flight that lasted 12 minutes, 43 seconds.
SpaceShipTwo was dropped again for a un-powered glide flight one week later. It was then taken inside the hangar for six months to undergo an extensive series of modifications, including the addition of wing tanks to hold helium that would be used to improve engine performance.
In February, Virgin Galactic took possession of the WhiteKnightTwo mother ship from contractor Scaled Composites. While doing some maintenance work, Virgin engineers discovered there were cracks in the ship. Specifically, cracks where the fuselage is connected to the wing spar, and cracks around the engines.
The company denied there were any cracks in the vehicle, referring to them instead as “adhesive imperfections” that could be easily repaired. WhiteKnightTwo resumed flights after repairs were made. Engineers also installed a new set of brakes on the mother ship during the down time.
In May, the company announced it was dumping a hybrid rubber motor developed for SpaceShipTwo by Sierra Nevada Corporation in favor of a hybrid nylon engine being built by Scaled Composites. The company said the nylon engine provided better performance.
Virgin Galactic officials also admitted that SpaceShipTwo would not be able to reach the 100 km (62 mile) international boundary of space. Instead, it would exceed the 50 mile (80 km) standard used by the U.S. Air Force and NASA.
SpaceShipTwo glide flights resumed on July 29 with Mike Masucci and Pete Siebold at the controls. Successful glide flights followed on Aug. 28 and Oct. 7. These tests were followed by the fatal flight on Oct. 31, which involved the first test of the nylon engine.
After the crash of SpaceShipTwo, the company announced it would redouble its efforts to finish the second version of the vehicle that was already under construction. Officials hoped to begin tests on it by April 2015.
Virgin Galactic announced that Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss had signed up to become the 700th and 701st passengers for SpaceShipTwo. The twin brothers are Bitcoin investors and were portrayed in the film, “The Social Network”.
The company also announced the selection of 12 payloads that would fly aboard a SpaceShipTwo research flight under NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. The experiments would make use of the microgravity conditions aboard the spaceship.
In April, Virgin Galactic announced a partnership with Land Rover to send one winner and three friends into space aboard SpaceShipTwo. As part of the deal, Virgin Galactic received Land Rovers whose doors were co-branded with the logos of both companies and the phrase, “Above and Beyond.”
Following the crash of the ship on Oct. 31, Land Rover designated alternate prizes for the competition. The co-branding was removed from the doors of the six Land Rovers being used by the company at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
Virgin Galactic also announced in September that Grey Goose Vodka would be the official vodka of the company. The deal was portrayed as a partnership between two innovative companies.
“This is a marriage of two brands who share values and a true sense that if you can imagine it, it can be done. Not only do we both follow the same long-term vision that the extraordinary can be achieved from acting on your beliefs, but we also look forward to celebrating this iconic cultural moment in time with those on the ground,” said Grey Goose creator and Maître de Chai François Thibault.
Virgin Galactic announced deals with two New Mexico hotels and a catering service in anticipation of tourists flights from Spaceport America. The lodgings are the Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces and Ted Turner’s Sierra Grande Lodge and Spa. The catering service is World Class Gourmet.
In August, Virgin Galactic announced a partnership with global book publisher DK to publish seven books over two years. The first book, titled Virgin Galactic: The Ultimate Experience, was due to be published in October. However, publication has now been delayed until March.
Reports surfaced in 2014 about a proposed deal under which Google would make an equity investment in Virgin Galactic and also provide funding for the LauncherOne small-satellite booster program. However, the deal reportedly fell through.
Legal & Legislative Issues
In May, Virgin Galactic and the New Mexico Spaceport Authority announced they had signed a joint agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) paving the way for commercial spaceflights from Spaceport America.
“The historic agreement sets out the parameters for how routine space missions launched from Spaceport America will be integrated into the National Airspace System,” Virgin Galactic said in a press release. “Specifically, the agreement spells out how the FAA’s Albuquerque Air Route Traffic Control Center and the New Mexico Spaceport Authority will work with Virgin Galactic to smoothly and safely provide clear airspace for SpaceShipTwo.”
Virgin’s application to the FAA for a launch license for SpaceShipTwo remained on hold most of the year. The main issue is the fact that once the launch license was granted, the experimental permit required to conduct additional tests and make changes and repairs to the spacecraft would expire.
Two measures were introduced in Congress to change that provision. However, they were not acted upon last year, meaning they will have to be re-introduced in the new Congress that began its session earlier this month.
The company is also looking for legislation that would allow the WhiteKnightTwo mother ship to be considered as part of the launch system. Virgin Galactic wants to use the aircraft to carry passengers and conduct training in addition to its role of launching SpaceShipOne and LauncherOne. However, those uses would require the aircraft to undergo a rigorous and expensive certification process.
In February, Virgin Galactic named John S. Rego as its new chief financial officer (CFO). He replaced Ken Sunshine, who had earlier departed the company.
In July, Virgin Galactic promoted Doug Shane as president of The Spaceship Company (TSC), a fully-owned subsidiary responsible for building SpaceShipTwo, WhiteKnightTwo and LauncherOne. Shane, who had joined the company in 2013 after serving as president of Scaled Composites, was previously TSC’s executive vice president and general manager.
That same month, the company announced the hiring of Todd Ericson to join its group of pilots. Ericson came to Virgin Galactic with 23 years of military flying experience, including 8,500 flight hours in more than 90 types of aircraft. He formerly served as the U.S. Air Force’s Operations and Maintenance Group Commander and was chief of safety for the Air Force Test Center.
Following the crash of SpaceShipTwo, Ericson was promoted to Virgin Galactic’s vice president of safety and test. He replaced Jon Turnipseed, who had retired in December 2013.
In December, Virgin Galactic appointed Richard DalBello as vice president of business development and governmental affairs. DalBello main responsibility is managing the LauncherOne project and the company’s relations with government agencies. He was formerly assistant director for space and aeronautics in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.