SpaceShipTwo Test Flights in Late 2016?

The second SpaceShipTwo under construction. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
The second SpaceShipTwo under construction. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Immediately after the fatal crash of SpaceShipTwo last October, Virgin Galactic vowed to have a second spacecraft ready for testing within about six months.  As the six month anniversary of Mike Alsbury’s was marked last week, it is clear it will take a while before flights resume. In fact, one Virgin Galactic official indicated flight tests might not occur until late 2016.

The company marked the anniversary of the fatal flight with an update on its website.

While our satellite launch team has been hard at work at our new facility in Long Beach, our human spaceflight program in Mojave has been making progress on building the second SpaceShipTwo. That new vehicle—which has not yet been formally named, though it’s had various internal nicknames over the years—is coming along at a steady pace, thanks to the efforts of the women and men in our manufacturing organization, The Spaceship Company. Our growing team is large enough to allow us to press forward both quickly and safely, and starting several months ago now have been working on the second SpaceShipTwo in three shifts, spanning days, nights, and weekends. In recent weeks, we’ve finished the final cure cycle of the main cabin (pictured above), closed out the main portions of the wings, and completed other important steps in the build plan.

Soon, we hope to take our new spaceship off of the construction fixtures and place her onto her own landing gear for the first time—a big milestone for the team. Of course, that moment marks not an end but rather another beginning. The spaceship will remain in our hangar for some time after that, occasionally moving back onto and back off the fixture as our crews continue installing new items and testing and verifying every piece of the craft. Only when our engineers, technicians, and safety officers are satisfied will the vehicle begin testing. Our hope is that the second SpaceShipTwo will enter into testing later this year, beginning with ground testing, then progressing through captive carry flights, glide flights, and eventually powered flights to progressively higher speeds and altitudes.

Like everyone else in the industry, Virgin Galactic has been consistently over optimistic about its schedule estimates. Given the way this is worded (“hope”), I would be surprised to see any actual flight tests this year. Ground tests are certainly possible.

Virgin Galactic Senior Program Manager Mark Butler told the Las Cruces Sun-News that flight tests on the second SpaceShipTwo could take quite a long time.

Butler said crews in California were taking lessons learned from the accident and applying those to construction of the new rocket. In the meantime, Virgin Galactic continues work on support operations at the spaceport in anticipation of the test flights resuming in late 2016.

The accident led to a “slowdown” of work at the spaceport, but Butler said the company was now “back on track” with the project. Just two weeks ago Virgin Galactic received a certificate of occupancy for its support operations areas at the spaceport.

“The program is not ending,” Butler said. “We are moving forward with this.”

After raising expectations for a decade, it’s possible Virgin Galactic is attempting to lower them. Vice President of Special Projects Will Pomerantz recently said company officials are trying to avoid setting any firm schedules.

  • MachineAgeChronicle

    To me it looked like a two year setback from day one. They had virtually abandoned work on the second frame six months (at least) before the accident. A small outfit like VG/SC can’t move faster on what’s technically a one-off design. I still predict a no-fly fate for this bird. They will not be able to find more investors and Branson will soon tire of throwing money at the project.

  • Snofru Chufu

    I agree!

  • MaxFactors

    A Mojave TSC engineer thought 3 years when I had suggested 2 years to reach first commercial flight of SS2 Rev 2. That was Jan 2015 meaning Jan 2018. If they are saying late 2016 for commencement of test flights, then early 2017 is much more likely due to slips. One year (at least) will be necessary to complete and qualify the system meaning first commercial flight in early 2018 (probably more like mid-2018). Three years total. Their ability to achieve commercial flight in that time frame is more organizational and management than technical. They were close to reaching first flight before the disaster. There are technical hurdles such as the main propulsion design, test and qualification and also resolving the weaknesses in the safeguards of their feathering deployment, ergonomics of their cockpit avionics. However, their management is a bigger factor. If management screws up mid-stream, spins their wheels, they could lose key engineers in a project that is stressed. Good luck to them but after 11 years, achieving commercial flight in 2018 or 2019 is not a big difference. It appears Blue Horizon will beat them to sub-orb commercial. A motif of Branson’s Virgin is not being cutting edge but rather providing consumers a better experience. That is what they need to focus on now with VG.

  • se jones

    Or (again) take my advice and hire BAE to convert this airframe to a UAV.
    With no precious human pilots, VG could commence flight tests right away.
    Fly the crap out of it, try the various engine configurations and pogo dampers in flight until you hit the sweet combination.

    I mean really…grow up VG. The DoD, NASA, Universities and airframers all use UAVs to try out radical new ideas. Face it, SS2 is not like a new version of a 767, SS2 is plowing new ground. Own up to it and start flying, a LOT, by remote control, put pilots in the seat when it’s ready.

  • Chief Galen Tyrol

    Yikes.

  • Snofru Chufu

    ???

  • MrFriendly B

    Blue what?

  • DavidR2015

    Its a secretive space company that we haven’t heard of yet.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    I disagree. I think Branson and co will continue to spend money till the bitter end. Even if SS2 proves unworthy of the time, money, effort and lives spent on it. I think they will move to a new vehicle architecture if necessary before abandoning the project entirely. I suspect that some combination of pride, hope, vision, dreams, greed, x? will keep VG in the game.

    I do think that LauncherOne and any potential future “full-size” orbital system is where they want to go. Continued pursuit of SS” success is more a case of face saving, bloody mindedness and publicity. And the publicity is not about egos, it’s about free advertising and halo effect. The payoff for success could be measured in billions for the Virgin group.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Yep, using and accommodating human pilots was their biggest mistake.

  • Snofru Chufu

    It sounds not bad. 🙂

  • se jones

    For flight test, for flight test.
    Once the performance of the engine(s)+ airframe is sorted out and certified, put the pilots back in and commence flight training. Paying passengers aren’t ready to jump in a winged a/c driven by a computer. Yet.

  • MaxFactors

    Origin, wise guy 😉 anyways, I think mine sounds cooler.

  • Hemingway

    Here are two of the latest “Glassdoor” reviews (May 1 and April 1) by two employees on work conditions at Virgin Galactic. This seems to verify why nothing is happening except marketing.

    http://www.glassdoor.com/Reviews/Virgin-Galactic-Reviews-E486741.htm

  • Hemingway

    From Glassdoor:

    May 2, 2015

    I worked at Virgin Galactic full-time (More than 5 years)

    Doesn’t Recommend

    Negative Outlook

    Pros

    This was a dream job and great history in the making. Not anymore, the business has lost focus and momentum. Top talent is leaving in droves.

    Cons

    Unrealistic business model and executive and management team doesn’t know how to run a business. Focus is on marketing and not on producing a safe reliable product.

    Advice to Management

    Pay attention to the product and let the rest follow. Safety matters. Quit continuing to reward those who say only what you want to hear; constructive and good feedback exists in the organization but is obviously often negatively received. Get rid of the passive aggressive members of the leadership team who are still there for the wrong reasons.

    Apr 1, 2015

    I have been working at Virgin Galactic full-time (More than 5 years)

    Negative Outlook

    Pros

    This is a DREAM idea. How can one not be excited by the opportunity to be a part of this enterprise?? You work with such an amazing group of people, who all have the same passion as you and want more than anything to see this through. The employees here are one-of-a-kind, and become your family. Virgin Galactic hires some of the most amazing people. THAT is the Pro.

    Cons

    SENIOR MANAGEMENT. Seems like a common trend here, don’t you think? I have been with the company for a very long time. I see so many quality people come and go. I see Virgin Galactic lose some extremely valuable assets. But, you know what we do not lose? THE SOURCE OF THE PROBLEM! This project does nothing more than burn through money and work around the objectives of the select… few Senior Managers and Execs in that insane boys club. Why, and I say it again, WHY does the Virgin BOD allow this project to run itself into the ground instead of bringing in the proper management to make this happen?? Until they toss out these people, nothing will improve and Virgin Galactic will risk going bankrupt and/or not be the first successful Sub-Orbital space tourism operator.Show Less

    Advice to Management

    Stop hiring new and fresh faces who are excited and boost your ego. Instead, talk to and listen to the people who have been here through the bad and good, and determine what needs to be done. Communicate! Don’t assume that your employees are loyal. Nothing is permanent, and no one signed a contract in blood. We WILL leave. We are leaving. Stop lying and speak the truth. BS’ing us… on timelines and budgets does not equate to retention. Tell us the truth. You’d be surprised by the amount of work we’d be willing to put in when we know what the problem is, and are consulted on the solutions.