Mojave Update: August Heat & Virgin Flights

Richard Branson rolls out Virgin Galactic's Spaceship Unity in Mojave. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Richard Branson rolls out Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Unity in Mojave. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

With the month of August upon us and no sign of relief from the oppressive desert heat, Mojave has at least one thing to look forward to: the first SpaceShipTwo flights in nearly two years.

Virgin Galactic officials have said they expect to begin flight tests of its second SpaceShipTwo vehicle sometime this month. The test program will begin with captive carry flights aboard the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft followed by glide flights. Powered tests are expected in 2017.

Five months and 14 days since Richard Branson rolled out the second SpaceShipTwo inside the Virgin Galactic hangar here in Mojave on Feb. 19. That might sound like a long gap, but it’s pretty normal for this program. The first SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo were rolled out many months before they took to the skies.

The selection of roll out dates appears to have more to do with public relations than flight readiness. For example, the February roll out came on the first birthday of Richard Branson’s granddaughter, Eva-Deia. The tiny tyke was on hand in Mojave to help christen the new spacecraft Unity with a bottle of milk.

Let’s take a closer look at roll out and flight dates.

WhiteKnightTwo

Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo with Burt Rutan and Richard Branson
WhiteKnightTwo with Burt Rutan and Richard Branson. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
  • Roll Out Date: July 28, 2008
  • First Flight: Dec 21, 2008
  • Time Between Roll Out & First Flight:  4 months, 24 days

SpaceShipTwo No. 1

The WhiteKnightTwo rolls out with SpaceShipTwo. (Photo Credit: Sam Coniglio)
The WhiteKnightTwo rolls out with SpaceShipTwo. (Photo Credit: Sam Coniglio)
  • Roll Out Date: Dec. 7, 2009
  • First Captive Carry without Crew:  March 22, 2010
  • First Captive Carry with Crew: July 15, 2010
  • First Glide Flight: Oct. 10, 2010
  • First Powered Flight: April 29, 2013
  • Final Flight: Oct. 31, 2014
  • Time Between Roll Out & First Captive Carry Flight without Crew:  3 months, 16 days
  • Time Between Roll Out & First Captive Carry Flight with Crew: 7 months, 9 days
  • Time Between Roll Out & First Glide Flight: 10 months, 4 days
  • Time Between Roll Out & First Powered Flight:  3 years, 4 months, 23 days
  • Time Between Roll Out and Final Flight: 4 years, 10 months, 25 days

There are a few things to note about the roll out and flight dates above.

WhiteKnightTwo was rolled out 1 year and 2 days after a fatal test stand explosion that left three Scaled Composites engineers dead and three others hospitalized with serious injuries. The roll out event showed progress in the program and overshadowed unresolved questions about the cause of the accident, Scaled Composites’s test stand procedures, and the safety of SpaceShipTwo’s engine.

WhiteKnightTwo’s first flight came four days before Christmas 2008 while the rollout of the first SpaceShipTwo was done earlier in December during the following year. Those achievements allowed the program to end those years on high notes. (Although Virgin Galactic narrowly avoided disaster during the 2009 roll out when high winds ripped apart tents it had set up for guests.)

More than seven months passed between SpaceShipTwo’s roll out and the first captive carry flight with a crew aboard. And it was just over 10 months between the roll out and the first glide flight.

As a sign of how badly engine development lagged behind vehicle development, nearly three years and five months passed between roll out and the first powered flight on April 29, 2013. The spacecraft crashed 18 months on only its fourth powered flight.

  • John_The_Duke_Wayne

    “The selection of roll out dates appears to have more to do with public relations than flight readiness.”

    Wonderful, I can’t even describe my feelings towards VG. Best way to sum it up, they are the only company that I DO NOT want to see flying people or payloads into or near space. I can’t even say they are flying people into space because they never actually get people high enough to cross into space

  • P.K. Sink

    Thanks, Doug, for the report. Any inside info on engine progress?

  • P.K. Sink

    Yeah, Duke, I know that you’re really down on these guys. I sure hope that they’ve learned some lessons. Fingers crossed.

  • John_The_Duke_Wayne

    I really hope they did, because they are getting very close to putting people’s lives in their vehicle. Their history does not give me much confidence in their ability to identify and mitigate hazards in their deign before something catastrophic (or nearly so) happens. A few people and former employees have expressed concerns about their safety culture (or lack there of).

    Rockets are bombs by nature, but they are carrying a huge bomb right next to their passengers and calling it a safety feature.

  • Douglas Messier

    Engine development seems to have gone well since the crash. They appear to have gotten the engine to burn better than it had been before .Instead of the Scaled-developed nylon-nitrous oxide version that they touted as superior (and used on the fatal flight), they’ve gone back to the rubber-nitrous oxide version which they now say has superior performance.

    Proof is in the pudding. We’ll know once they start flying under power. Apparently it’s burning more smoothly, but it’s still a big chunk of cast rubber that will have imperfections in it that could make for some rough rides. And I’d still be nervous sitting in front of a big tank of nitrous oxide. People I know who have worked with nitrous oxide don’t like it.

  • John_The_Duke_Wayne

    Thanks for the info.

    “Apparently it’s burning more smoothly,”

    Have you heard if they are having problems with small chunks coming loose during operation?

  • Sam Moore

    VG just posted that they’ve got an FAA operator’s licence for SS2, and that they’ve started taxi tests of Unity. http://www.virgingalactic.com/faa-ast-awards-virgin-galactic-operator-license-for-spaceshiptwo/
    I presume an operator’s licence is for commercial rather than experimental flights?

  • Douglas Messier

    Yeah operator license. I don’t fully understand this decision. I had thought the license would come at or near the end of flight test program done under experimental permit. The FAA would want to see SpaceShipTwo actually…you know…fly to space first before issuing the company a license to fly missions. There would be actual results they could base the granting of a license on. Something to be able to say we’ve seen this fly and we believe the FAA can fulfill its primary role to protect the uninvolved public.