Mojave Ornithology Report — 02/18/16

SpaceShipTwo in flight on Dec. 19, 2012. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo in flight on Dec. 19, 2012. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

A new bird will appear in Mojave tomorrow.

SpaceShipTwo No. 2 will be rolled out of the hanger amid as much hype and hoopla as Virgin Galactic can generate. (And they can generate A LOT. Trust me. I’ve seen it.)

Virgin’s presence here in Mojave has noticeable expanded during the last few days. Folks with distinct British accents have been seen at the Voyager, the Mariah and Stoken’s Donuts. Richard Branson’s mom (or mum), Eve, was at the Mariah bar earlier this evening.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like Stephen Hawking will make it out to our charming (?) little desert town for the ceremony. It doesn’t appear that he was well enough to travel. At least that’s what I’ve heard.

I won’t be covering the roll out tomorrow. I didn’t receive an invitation, nor did I ask for one. This really doesn’t bother me. It’s their party, and they can invite who they wish. To say that I’m not exactly very popular over there is an understatement.

Rolling out the second SpaceShipTwo after losing the first one in a fatal accident has high symbolic value. Renewal, rebirth, determination in the face of adversity. It’s all good. And if there’s one thing Virgin understands, it is symbolism.

From a practical standpoint, the roll out probably doesn’t mean all that much. WhiteKnightTwo and the first SpaceShipTwo were months away from flying when Virgin rolled them out for the first time. They looked pretty enough, but there was still a lot of work to do on them.

Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo with Burt Rutan and Richard Branson
Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo with Burt Rutan and Richard Branson

How far along is this one? And when will it fly? Virgin isn’t saying. But, based on this blog post, it looks like it’s going to be on the ground for a while.

This is actually a good thing. It indicates that Virgin is finally setting some realistic expectations for this program. This is a nice change from 2004 when Branson was predicting flights in three years, four at the outside.

I recall all too well being at Oshkosh and hearing Branson predict flights in 18 months. That was in July 2009.

Richard Branson after his first flight aboard WhiteKnightTwo at the Oshkosh airshow.
Richard Branson after his first flight aboard WhiteKnightTwo at the Oshkosh airshow. (Credi: Douglas Messier)

More promises were made at the dedicated the runway at the half finished Spaceport America. That was in October 2010.

A year later, they dedicated the spaceport’s terminal hangar facility with Kate Winslet and Princess Beatrice. There were more assurances that all was well. Branson even claimed they’ve tested the spaceship’s rocket engine thousands of times, which was two zeros too many.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Richard Branson pose in front of SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Richard Branson pose in front of SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

After the first powered flight in April 2013, Branson talked about flying to space at Christmastime. This despite not have an engine that could get them there.

In another burst of hopeless optimism, Branson assured 300 ticket holders who have trekked to Mojave in September 2013 that flights were only months away. They still didn’t really have an engine.

A majority of Virgin Galactic's future Astronauts gather with Sir Richard Branson (center) for a group photo at Virgin Galactic FAITH hangar in Mojave, CA September 25, 2013. AT side is the WhiteKnight2 mated with SpaceShip2. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
A majority of Virgin Galactic’s future Astronauts gather with Sir Richard Branson (center) for a group photo at Virgin Galactic FAITH hangar in Mojave, CA September 25, 2013. AT side is the WhiteKnight2 mated with SpaceShip2. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Flash forward a year to Oct 4.  At the Ansari X Prize 10th anniversary celebration in Mojave, Branson says Virgin is on the “verge.”

Four weeks later, SpaceShipTwo crashes, killing co-pilot Mike Alsbury.

Richard Branson speaks to the press at the Mojave Air and Space Port about the crash off SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Richard Branson speaks to the press at the Mojave Air and Space Port about the crash off SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Following the crash, Virgin announces they will finish the second SpaceShipTwo by April. That optimistic estimate came, and went.

So, you can see why the new practice of not making estimates is a breath of fresh air. I hope this gets carried through the flight test program. I hope they take their time and test the shit out of that ship before they put any passengers on it. If they do that and don’t have another accident, they’ve got a shot.

You can also probably see why I’m not really upset about not attending the festivities tomorrow. I’ve seen this movie before, many times. I have a pretty good idea of how this is going to go. And what they are going to say.

After 11 years of too many promises and too few accomplishments, it’s difficult to get all that excited about the program. Not with SpaceX and Blue Origin landing rockets. And commercial crew flights coming up next year.

Virgin Galactic once seemed to be far ahead of everyone else. Branson and Burt Rutan would lead us into a new era of routine spaceflight. But, now it seems like the company is trying to catch up.

It’s sad. Nothing would have boosted the industry more than if Virgin had succeeded years ago. In the same way the iPhone made Android possible, Virgin’s success would have brought far more investment into the industry. Other companies would have benefited, allowing them to develop competing systems that would have brought competition and choice for consumers.

The roll out tomorrow is only a small step. Virgin has a long road ahead of it. We’ll see how well they can navigate it.