A Niche in Time: First Flight

Richard Branson addresses the crowd before SpaceShipTwo’s glide flight. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Part 5 of 5

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The morning of Dec. 3, 2016, began like so many others in Mojave. The first rays of dawn gave way to a brilliant sunrise that revealed a cloudless, clear blue sky over California’s High Desert.

This was hardly newsworthy. For most of the year, Mojave doesn’t really have weather, just temperatures and wind speeds. It had been literally freezing overnight; the mercury was at a nippy 28º F (-2.2º C) at 4 a.m. As for Mojave’s famous winds – an enemy of roofs, trees and big rigs, but the lifeblood of thousands of wind turbines that cover the landscape west of town – there really weren’t any. It was basically a flat calm.

In other words, it was a perfect day to fly.

Accustomed to much warmer temperatures on his private island in the Caribbean, Richard Branson was bundled up in a warm winter jacket as he gathered with employees of Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company at the base of Mojave Air and Space Port’s control tower. Branson likes to think of his companies as family, and the philosophy was well in evidence. Employees had brought their spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends and children.

The presence of kids happily running about gave the gathering a light mood that belied the seriousness of the task scheduled for this day. After four captive carry flights nestled between WhiteKnightTwo’s twin fuselages, SpaceShipTwo Unity would fly free for the first time.

The first flight of any new vehicle is always a nerve wreaking event, but this flight was especially so. Two years earlier, SpaceShipTwo Enterprise had broken up during a powered flight test, killing Scaled Composites co-pilot Mike Alsbury and leaving pilot Pete Siebold hospitalized with serious injuries. The accident had destroyed the program’s only spaceship only months before Virgin Galactic had been scheduled to begin commercial service with it at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

SpaceShipTwo glides through the Mojave sky followed by an Extra chase plane. (Credit; Ken Brown)

Today’s glide flight would thus be a major milestone in recovering from that accident. The test was far less ambitious than a powered one, but it was hardly risk free. In September 2011, Enterprise had entered a stall during a glide flight. The ship flipped over into an inverted spin before the pilots were able to right it and land safely after a harrowing flight.

But there was another risk Virgin Galactic was taking this day. It had taken years to build Unity and prepare it for today’s flight test. It was only SpaceShipTwo the company had, and it would be dropped by the only WhiteKnightTwo ever built. So, if anything catastrophic happened to either vehicle, Virgin Galactic would be right back where it was on Oct. 31, 2014 – unable to continue with the flight test program and facing years of additional delays until a new vehicle could be built.

That was assuming Virgin Galactic would build a replacement vehicle. The SpaceShipTwo program had already consumed 12 years and hundreds of millions of dollars while claiming four lives in two separate accidents, all without completing a single flight anywhere near space. If this proved to be another bad day, would the company try to recover or throw in the towel?

Fortunately, nobody had to make that decision. As spectators on the ground gazed skyward, Unity made a clean separation from WhiteKnightTwo to the northeast of the spaceport. Pilots David Mackay and Mark Stucky spent 10 minutes flying the ship to a safe runway landing back in Mojave in what was, to all appearances, a routine glide flight with no serious anomalies.

Richard Branson moves to embrace SpaceShipTwo pilots David Mackay and Mark Stucky. To Branson’s right in Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Branson and Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides walked out onto the tarmac to congratulate and embrace the two pilots for a mission well done. The quartet then walked to the fence line on the edge of the field where the pilots accepted congratulations from happy co-workers.

A major flight milestone had been passed. But, a single flight does not a test program make. Many additional glide and powered tests would be required before SpaceShipTwo would carry any paying passengers. And that would take some time.

Today, as the SpaceShipTwo program enters its 14th year, Virgin Galactic has still not reached the same point in the flight test program it had reached at the time SpaceShipTwo Enterprise was lost nearly three years ago. Powered are scheduled to start by the end of the year, with commercial operations possible in 2018.

That’s what Branson has been predicting. But, Virgin Galactic has missed deadlines before.

Life, Death & Niches in Time

This series has dealt with matters of life and death. And in this, we’re not just talking about the tragic loss of lives aboard the Hindenburg, Columbia and Enterprise. We’re talking about the birth, life and death of the transportation systems those vehicles represented. While ocean-going ships and airplanes have evolved far beyond what their inventors could have ever imagined, others have had much shorter shelf lives.

A DC-3 aircraft is dwarfed by the Hindenburg

The rigid airship was born in Germany in 1900, dominated the early age of passenger aviation, and was fading in the face of competition from airplanes by the time the Hindenburg exploded at Lakehurst, N.J., in May 1937.

Faced with the unwillingness of the United States to export helium to replace the hydrogen blamed for the explosion, the Germans ended their program two years later. The rigid airship era had lasted 39 years.

The space shuttle was conceived in the early 1970’s as a way to make space travel routine, safe and affordable. Although enormously capable, the vehicles turned out to be extremely expensive and dangerous as well.

After losing a second space shuttle, Columbia, in 2003, the U.S. government decided to end the program as soon as the remaining orbiters completed construction of the International Space Station. The shuttle era ended 30 years after the first flight by Columbia in 1981.

The space shuttle Endeavour makes a low pass over the Mojave Air and Space Port atop its carrier aircraft on its final flight. (Credit: Bill Deaver)

German rigid airships and American space shuttles filled specific transportation niches during particular time periods. Unlike airplanes – which grew steadily larger, more capable and reliable over the decades — Zeppelins and shuttles were essentially dead-end technologies that were not easy to scale up.

That might be a major problem with SpaceShipTwo as well. None of the engineers Parabolic Arc has asked over the years can envision a larger SpaceShipTwo with a proportionally bigger WhiteKnightTwo taking to the skies. The ship and its hybrid engine would probably be impossible to scale up for orbital flights, they say.

Branson has frequently talked about flying people between continents on hypersonic suborbital vehicles at some vague point in the future. But, none of the engineers Parabolic Arc has talked with believes that SpaceShipTwo is a precursor to those vehicles.

This is not to say that the experience of building and flying SpaceShipTwo hasn’t been beneficial to Virgin Galactic and its manufacturing arm, The Spaceship Company. Experience in composites, supersonic flight and propulsion has served them well in developing the LauncherOne satellite booster. (That program has been spun off into a separate company called Virgin Orbit.) That expertise is also valuable to the companies’ partnership with Boom, a startup that is developing a commercial airliner capable of flying at Mach 2.2.

A Different Approach to Suborbital

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

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin took a much different approach to suborbital flight. New Shepard is composed of a conventional booster that lifts off vertically from a launch complex with a capsule on top that re-enters the atmosphere in a ballistic manner and lands by parachute. New Shepard also has an escape system that can blast the capsule away from a malfunctioning booster.

At first glance, New Shepard appears little different from the Mercury-Redstone system that its namesake, Alan Shepard, flew into space in 1961. The major innovation is that New Shepard is fully reusable. The rocket makes a vertical descent back and touches down on landing legs. It can be refueled and used to re-fly the same capsule. Blue Origin did exactly that on multiple occasions.

New Shepard crew capsule (Credit: Blue Origin)

Blue Origin’s technology can be scaled up. The company plans to use a modified version of the BE-3 engine developed for New Shepard on a larger booster named New Glenn that will place payloads into orbit. The capsule is also giving the company experience it can apply to an orbital crew vehicle.

Blue Origin plans to offer suborbital space tourism flights on New Shepard as early as next year. Those tourism flights, as well as others that will fly micro-gravity experiments, will serve to open up space to a much wider variety of people and experimenters.

That doesn’t mean it will be as safe as flying a commercial airliner. Space tourists will still be riding a rocket with volatile fuel inside of a spacecraft exposed to the vacuum of space. Despite all the precautions that will be taken, any number of things – a loss of cabin pressure, for example – could result in a bad day.

While Blue Origin will make money from its suborbital business, Bezos’ real ambition lies in Earth orbit and beyond. The Amazon.com billionaire envisions a thriving cis-lunar economy that includes manufacturing facilities, space tourism, and human bases on the moon. How big a part suborbital flight will play in Bezos’ space program over the long run remains to be seen.

As for Virgin Galactic, Branson was asked earlier this year what would happen if SpaceShipTwo suffered another catastrophic failure.

“What would we do if that happened?” he replied. “How would we all feel? We’d have to look at what had gone wrong and then decide at the time. But I’m not one for giving up. In my ballooning adventures we had many catastrophes but we kept pushing on. So my instinct would be that, whatever happens, we’ll carry on until we succeed.”

Time will tell.

The Series

Part 1: Behemoths of the Sky
Part 2: “One of the worst catastrophes in the world”
Part 3: “Lock the doors”
Part 4: One Chute
Part 5: First Flight

  • Doug, first, great series as always. I’m not sure whether to say “BUT”, or “AND”… (So I’ll say BOTH!)

    AND/BUT while technologies have their niche in time, they can both fall out of favor and they can also fall back INTO favor. The rocket is the perfect example. They went from wildly inaccurate Chinese beginnings and Congreve’s rocket artillery to their disappearance in the late 1800s. Not only did they reappear in the 20th century as Katushas, MLRS but the biggest ‘artillery’ of all – ICBMs.

    The airship isn’t used for mass/rapid transit, but any balloonist would refute calling it dead. And weather balloons continue to be used with no sign of stopping.
    Are space shuttles dead? NOPE! Just look at X-37 and the plans of SpaceX and Sierra Nevada or Lockheed Martin’s Mars/Moon lander.

    I guess the question is niche in TIME or niche in APPLICATION? I’ve never used a horse for real transportation (personal or goods), but lots of people do. I’ve only ever used a tent for recreation, but some cultures have been dwelling in them successfully for thousands of years. Even in our modern age, an old or discarded idea can be the PERFECT fit for a particular application.

  • Calvin Dodge

    Minor nit: I think you meant “conventional booster”, not “convention booster”

  • Douglas Messier

    Fixed. Thanks.

  • Doug Weathers

    Loved the series! I learned a lot about airships, and I think you did a great job drawing the parallels between the vehicles discussed. Time will, indeed, tell.