Virgin Galactic Now On its Own

Takeoff! (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Takeoff! (Credit: Douglas Messier)

The Los Angeles Times has a story on how Virgin Galactic is proceeding after the loss of SpaceShipTwo. The company is mostly on its own, no longer relying upon Scaled Composites to build SpaceShipTwos and WhiteKnightTwos and to run the flight test program.

Virgin Galactic’s fully owned subsidiary, The Spaceship Company, is now building the second SpaceShipTwo on its own. Virgin will conduct the flight test program for the vehicle without Scaled. Previously, flight test was led by Scaled with increased participation from Virgin personnel as the program went further.

The split was part of the plan all along. Virgin had hoped to complete the flight test program of the first SpaceShipTwo with Scaled before completing work on the second vehicle.

Virgin and Scaled used to be partners in The Spaceship Company. However, Scaled’s corporation owner, Northrop Grumman, had no interest in manufacturing space planes, so it sold its shares to Virgin several years ago.

Virgin going it alone from here on has aspects that are potentially positive and negative. It’s no secret around Mojave that relations between the two companies have been strained for years. Their cultures are very different, for one. And each side blames the other for the delays and problems with the program. Virgin Galactic believes Scaled failed to deliver what it promised. Scaled believes Virgin officials never understood the complexities of new vehicle development and testing.

The latter complaint is interesting in that it echoes remarks recently made by Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides about the press and public. He recently stated that he was surprised by how much effort it took to explain the nature of flight test and that sometimes things go wrong during after SpaceShipTwo was lost.

Whitesides admitted that Virgin Galactic could have done a better job at that before the crash, and he promised a more “proactive” effort in the future. That’s actually being kind; they made little effort at all. Virtually all their focus was on explaining how safe the spaceship would be. You can see that on the archived version of their website, which was taken down and scrubbed immediately after SpaceShipTwo went down.

The potentially negative impact of Virgin’s split with Scaled Composites is that The Spaceship Company is building a vehicle on its own for the first time. There’s always a learning curve involved. They also have to make changes in the next SpaceShipTwo to accommodate what they learned from the shortened flight test program and the accident.

However, there appears to be a rush to get the vehicle completed and into flight test as soon as possible. After the crash, officials spoke about completing that task by April. Sources say it will probably take longer, and that would not be a bad thing.

Meanwhile, engine tests continue in Mojave. There was one on Thursday that sent up a thick cloud of black smoke over the test site. I initially thought it was a nitrous oxide-rubber engine, but a source indicated it was actually a nitrous oxide-nylon engine to which a substance was added to improve the burn. If that’s the plan moving forward, we will soon being going back to SpaceShipTwo flights looking like flying tire fires.

  • Visitor

    It does seem as though quite a few Scaled Composites people are now at the Space Ship Company.
    Does this not indicate that the culture will not be all that different?
    Also, who is bulding/testing the engine?

  • windbourne

    Having them split is not a big deal. What is of concern, is where did the majority of talent that worked on SS1 and 2 go?

  • Douglas Messier

    Not necessarily. Can import people but not necessarily culture.

    The engine….that’s a good question. The nylon engine is a Scaled project. I’m still hearing that VG is working on a rubber motor.

  • patb2009

    “but a source indicated it was actually a nitrous oxide-nylon engine to which a substance was added to improve the burn ” It’s my understanding the Nylon engine runs with Helium, Nitrous, Methane, GOX. Is this another fluid also running in the engine? Also is the goal of the “Substance” to increase Isp or improve combustion stability?

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    I’m starting to seriously doubt whether VG has the necessary impetus to see this through. Words are easy but this seems to be turning into a ‘Cx’ program to me.
    I will be very surprised if they finally get it together and start flying paying passengers.
    In addition, they may be overtaken by other companies with alternative approaches.
    Cheers.

  • SpaceTech

    I do know that quite a few of the guys that worked on SS1 jumped at the chance to move on to better positions with Northrop Grumman when NG bought Scaled Composites in 2007.

  • windbourne

    Really? I would think that Scaled was a better company to work for then NG.
    But, that could burn Scaled/VG to lose that expertise.

  • Matt

    Scaled may not provide so many positions opportunities as large NG at all.

  • Stuart

    Sadly, it seems to look like a messy divorce, that has been on the cards for quite a while, the the last tragedy brought things to a head. The one partner gets the majority of belongings, some wanted, some not. Sadly all the internal issues are brought out into the open….

    All we really wanted to see was a united partnership providing craft and bringing the dreams of many (with deep pockets) to reality.

  • SpaceTech

    The guys I know said payroll, benefits and job stability all improved after the merge. The downside was that they were working many more hours, but they loved the paychecks that came with it.

  • ThomasLMatula

    I expect NG is glad to be rid of SpaceShipTwo and free to focus Scaled Composites 100% on drones where the real money is. And where Scaled Composites real expertise is located.

  • SpaceTech

    As SC is the “manufacturer” it has liability written all over it and I agree, I am sure NG wasn’t broken hearted to part ways with VG/SSC.
    Although, I do wonder (as Windbourne said) how much of the braintrust AND equipment went with NG?

  • windbourne

    yeah, many small companies are great opportunities and loads of fun, but ……

  • windbourne

    most equipment is easy to acquire. I would think that anything that SC was using on this was either duplicated or given to VG.

    It is the braintrust that I would be concerned about.

  • Douglas Messier

    Carbon black is what I was told.

  • Douglas Messier

    This program has been a bit of a nightmare for Scaled in terms of building it and working with Virgin Galactic.

    SpaceShipTwo was a proof of concept vehicle. Explaining that to Branson and the Virgin folks was a struggle. Not a company that really understood R&D. Branson is a high school dropout with dyslexia who has little grasp of the finer points of technology.

    Like all prototypes, the first pair of WK2 and SS2 vehicles were never intended for commercial service. But VG pushed for that anyway, largely because of funding shortfalls.

    Scaled has legitimate complaints about Virgin. The same is true of Virgin’s complaints about Scaled. Regardless of what Virgin has claimed, the much larger SS2 really was Burt Rutan’s dream. And Scaled’s results speak for themselves. Ten year, four powered flight tests, four deaths and not a single trip anywhere near space. That’s not a good result.

  • Douglas Messier

    I think they’re actually going to focus on Birdzilla if they want to meet their 2016 first flight goal.

  • Matt

    Addition of carbon black to solid fuel of hybrid rockets (as HTBB or paraffin) is a common measure design to prevent deep penetration of fuel by radiation, which originates from
    combustion process.

  • patb2009

    So the idea is to mix Carbon Black into the nylon to keep IR from radiating into the grain? Does it create any QA issues?

  • Matt

    I referred my comment to HTPB as fuel. Nylon (polyamide) is a different case, because it is usually not cast (as HTPB or paraffin) by the end user. Normally, Nylon grain pieces are machined. The last firing test of VG was performed with a HTPB motor as the plume suggests. However, I have no idea what the present situation at VG concerning the next used hybrid rocket configuration is. Maybe Mr. Messier knows more.

  • Chris Courtois

    Isn’t this just perfectly foreshadowing another freakin’ deadly tragedy?! OMG this program… maight wanna actually end it now… the VG culture is abhorrent.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, I forgot about that project. It will be amazing to watch it fly.

  • windbourne

    lets wait and see.
    Doug has done a good job of watching over VG and being up with what they are up to. It is possible that things will change for the better.

  • Chris Courtois

    I hope. It’s a nice bird; would be a shame to see more tragedy around it.