Blue Origin Soared, Virgin Galactic Glided & XCOR Stumbled in 2016

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It was a busy year in the development of suborbital human spacecraft, with Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic both taking to the sky and XCOR putting its Lynx space plane on hold.

Blue Origin flew its reusable New Shepard booster and capsule to space four times from its West Texas launch site. The flights included a test in June during which one of the capsule’s three parachutes was deliberately not inflated. The capsule survived the landing just fine.

In October, Blue Origin conducted a spectacular mid-flight test of the capsule’s abort system. The abort rocket fired as planned, pulling the capsule clear of its booster to descend separately under its parachutes.

The New Shepard capsule separates from its booster as the abort motor fires. (Credit: Blue Origin)
The New Shepard capsule separates from its booster as the abort motor fires. (Credit: Blue Origin)

The booster was not expecting the booster to survive the test, but it did. The rocket descended toward the desert floor, deployed its landing legs and touching down safely.

It was the fifth and final flight of the booster and the sixth flight for the capsule. Blue Origin retired both vehicles immediately after the flight.

The company plans to begin flights of New Shepard in 2017 using test subjects – they won’t be test pilots because the brief suborbital flights are fully automated. If all goes well, Blue Origin will begin flying paying customers on suborbital rides sometime in 2018.

SpaceShipTwo Glides Again

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)

Virgin Galactic unveiled its second SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle, Unity, in February during an event in its FAITH facility at the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, Calif. The roll out came about 16 months after the first SpaceShipTwo broke up and crashed during a flight test in October 2014.

WhiteKnightTwo took the second SpaceShipTwo Unity on a captive carry flight on Sept. 8. Virgin Galactic officials said they were satisfied with the results of the test and decided to move forward with glide flights.

The first glide attempt on Nov. 1 – two years and a day after the accident – was scrubbed due to high. A second drop flight two days later was canceled just prior to release due to an unidentified technical problem. Four weeks later, WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo took to the skies for a fourth captive carry flight.

SpaceShipTwo glides to a landing at Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo glides to a landing at Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

On Dec. 3, Unity flew conducted its first glide flight on a chilly Saturday morning with Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson watching from the flight line. A second glide flight followed on Dec. 22 to close out the year.

In a video released to coincide with the first glide flight, Branson claimed the company was back to where it was in the flight test program at the time of the accident two years earlier.  This was an erroneous claim; the first SpaceShipTwo had completed its glide flights and was on its fourth powered test when it crashed,

Virgin Galactic officials have said they expect to conduct a total of about 10 glide flights of Unity to collect data on the new spacecraft. That number could increase or decrease depending upon what the flight tests reveal.

An anonymous source tells Parabolic Arc the company expects to be in powered fight tests by June. Depending upon the flight test rate, they probably won’t get to Unity‘s fourth powered flight until the end of July or August at the earliest. That would be nearly three years after the loss of the first SpaceShipTwo.

XCOR Stumbles

 Lynx cowling (Credit: XCOR)
Lynx cowling (Credit: XCOR)

It was not the best of years for XCOR Aerospace, which found itself retrenching amid financial difficulties and mourning the deaths of former and present employees.

In May, the company laid off approximately half of its 50 employees and stopped almost all work on its two-seat suborbital Lynx space plane due to a shortage of funds.

The company said it is continuing development work on an upper stage engine for United Launch Alliance. However, the long-term prospects for the company remain unclear.

The setbacks followed the departure of three of XCOR’s four founders. Jeff Greason, Dan DeLong and Loretta “Aleta” Jackson DeLong founded Agile Aero, a company focused on rapid prototyping.

Aleta Jackson DeLong (Credit: Mike Massee)
Aleta Jackson DeLong (Credit: Mike Massee)

It was not long before XCOR and Agile Aero lost one of their founders. Jackson passed away in December after losing her battle with cancer. The loss was deeply felt among former and current XCOR employees to whom she had served as a mother figure.

“She was the den mother to the XCOR family, and we loved her – but not as much as she loved us. I miss her,” commented former XCOR employee Doug Weathers on Facebook.

Yesterday I lost a very good friend and the world lost an extraordinary and unique woman,” wrote former XCOR employee Mike Massee in a moving tribute.

Two months earlier, XCOR also lost engineering manager Ron Mathis, who succumbed to injuries sustained after he was struck by an automobile while biking home from work. His engineering expertise is very much missed at the company.

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