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.