Virgin Galactic: SpaceShipTwo Not Flying this Year

Richard Branson, GREY GOOSE creator and Maître de Chai François Thibault, and George Whitesides toast to a new partnership. (Credit: Grey Goose)
Richard Branson, GREY GOOSE creator and Maître de Chai François Thibault, and George Whitesides toast to a new partnership. (Credit: Grey Goose)

Forbes contributor and SpaceShipTwo ticket holder Jim Clash attended a recent Virgin Galactic future space tourists gathering at the Explorers Club in New York to get an update on how things are going.  Unsurprising, things are going along fine.

VG customer relations president Stephen Attenborough assured the audience, which included future astronauts from Canada, Great Britain, Switzerland and the U.S., that a replacement version of SS2 is nearly complete, with rigorous test flights scheduled to commence in 2016. Attenborough also confirmed that VG founder Sir Richard Branson still plans to be aboard the first commercial SS2 spaceflight. Speculation is that probably won’t occur until 2017.

That sounds about right. In an interview published last Tuesday, Richard Branson said Virgin Galactic would be unveiling the new SpaceShipTwo in January. What he meant by that is anyone’s guess; it is clear there will be no flights this year.

Branson’s predictions on Virgin Galactic’s schedule have seldom been accurate in the past. Remember how they predicted the second SpaceShipTwo would be completed within five or six months after the first spacecraft was destroyed last Halloween? Branson’s hoping you didn’t.

Unveiling the new SpaceShipTwo presumably means rolling it out from the hangar in Mojave before a carefully selected group of media reps, ticket holders and other notables. January would be good time for that; new year, new spacecraft, renewed optimism for the future.

Rolling out the vehicle would not necessarily mean it was anywhere close to flight tests. WhiteKnightTwo and the original SpaceShipTwo were largely empty shells when they were first rolled out to the public. Much additional work was required before they flew.

WhiteKnightTwo was rolled out in July 2008 but did not fly until five months later, just before Christmas. The first SpaceShipTwo had its first captive carry test three months after it was unveiled in December 2009 and its first glide 10 months after roll out.

Preparations for SpaceShipTwo’s first flights would be faster due to experience with the first vehicle. It’s really a question of how far along it is when they unveil it.

Meanwhile, Clash seems to be under the impression that he and his fellow space tourists will be going to 100 km and have five minutes to float around and enjoy the view.

VG’s new senior test pilot, Mark “Forger” Stucky, then discussed his supersonic flights in the original version of SS2 and his extensive career as a military pilot, including Mach 3 flights in the SR-71 Blackbird. Stucky will be taking many of VG’s 700-plus ticket-holders to space, considered 100 kilometers above sea level, and told those present in the audience that he is “incredibly excited” for the opportunity.

Virgin Galactic officials have admitted the spaceship can’t reach that altitude. Unless they’ve managed to significantly lighten the second SpaceShipTwo or greatly increase the power of whatever hybrid engine they will use, passengers will be lucky to get to 80 km (50 miles) with fewer than five minutes to float around. And that’s all Virgin Galactic promised in the agreements passengers signed.

Orbital space tourist Greg Olson was also on hand to talk about his trip to the International Space Station, the awesome view, the need to take risks, and the cool questions you get after you come back.

On a broader front, Olsen remarked that America is becoming more risk-averse, and that accidents during testing, such as SS2’s last year, while regrettable are part of pushing new boundaries. On the lighter side, Olsen joked that, as an astronaut, his most-oft-asked question by children is, “How do you go to the bathroom in space?” He noted when he had met the Dalai Lama, that question was His Holiness’s first, too.

That’s not going to be easy on SpaceShipTwo; the vehicle doesn’t have a toilet. So, just tell them you held it in.