Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic Eye Human Spaceflights in 2018

New Shepard booster fires its engine just over the landing pad. (Credit: Blue Origin)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

While Boeing and SpaceX move toward flying astronauts to the International Space Station this year, there are two other companies working on restoring the ability to launch people into space from U.S. soil.

Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic aren’t attempting anything as ambitious as orbital flight. Their aim is to fly short suborbital hops that will give tourists and scientists several minutes of microgravity to float around and conduct experiments in.

Blue Origin will use its reusable New Shepard booster and capsule. Virgin Galactic has its partially reusable SpaceShipTwo, which is air launched from the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. Unlike New Shepard, SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid engine must be replaced after each flight.

It’s been a long road toward human spaceflight for the companies, which were both founded at the turn of the century. Founder Jeff Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, but it was not until 2015 that the company conducted its first suborbital spaceflight with New Shepard.

Virgin Group Chairman Richard Branson registered Virgin Galactic Airways in 1999. Five years later, he forged agreements with Paul Allen and designer Burt Rutan to commercialize the SpaceShipOne technology that had won the $10 million Ansari X Prize. Virgin Galactic has yet to get SpaceShipTwo into space.

Mannequin Skywalker — an instrumented test dummy — flew aboard the New Shepard capsule. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Blue Origin has flown its New Shepard system seven times since April 2015. Five of those flights went above 100 km (62 miles), which is the internationally recognized boundary of space. New Shepard’s first test flight reached 93.5 km (58 miles), with the seventh flight in December flying to just a shade under 100 km.

The company successfully recovered the New Shepard capsule, which lands under parachute, on all seven flights. On one flight, the booster crashed instead of making a propulsive landing back on Earth.

The most recent flight in December was the first of the upgraded New Shepard system. The capsule carried a dozen scientific experiments and an instrumented test dummy dubbed Mannequin Skywalker.

Last month’s flight was conducted under a FAA launch license that allows the company to collect revenues. Previous flights were conducted under an experimental permit that did not allow the company to charge for payloads.

Blue Origin officials say they are planning a series of New Shepard flights throughout 2018 that will carry scientific experiments and test out the new system. A key goal is to learn how to quickly turn around the system between flights using a small team of personnel.

In December, officials said they were about a year away from flying scientists with experiments aboard New Shepard. Those flights would be conducted aboard a human-rated version of the system, not the booster and capsule being flown now.

Blue Origin plans to fly tourists aboard the capsule, which has six seats and large windows that will provide spectacular views of Earth and space. The company is not selling tickets for these rides yet, nor has it revealed a ticket price or timetable for the start of these flights.

SpaceShipTwo glides over the Mojave Desert after being released from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship. (Credit; Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic is continuing to test its second SpaceShipTwo, Unity, at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Between December 2016 and August 2017, the vehicle made six glide flights after being dropped from WhiteKnightTwo.

The first SpaceShipTwo, Enterprise, made 30 successful glide flights and three powered flights. It broke up on its fourth powered flight on Oct. 31, 2014, killing Scaled Composites co-pilot Mike Alsbury and injuring pilot Pete Siebold.

Virgin Galactic officials say they plan to conduct one more glide flight before beginning powered tests. After a number of powered flights in Mojave, they plan to move operations down to Spaceport America in New Mexico to complete the test program. The company is the spaceport’s anchor tenant.

Branson plans to be on the inaugural commercial flight from Spaceport America. Virgin Galactic officials have not given an estimate of when that is likely to happen, but the mogul says he is getting into shape for a spaceflight this year.

Richard Branson and George Whitesides gave out at SpaceShipTwo after it came to a stop on Runway 12. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry six passengers and two pilots. How high the vehicle will fly is uncertain. Before the 2014 crash, Virgin Galactic officials admitted the spacecraft could not get to the 100 km (62 miles) boundary of space.

However, the company said SpaceShipTwo would be able to exceed 50 miles (80.4 km), which is the definition of space used by the U.S. Air Force to award astronaut wings to X-15 pilots in the 1060’s. Fifty miles is the minimum altitude stipulated in agreements with customers, who are paying up to $250,000 per seat.

A source had told Parabolic Arc the company has been telling ticket holders to expect flights up to 55 miles (88.5 km). Engineers are also working on reducing the weight of SpaceShipTwo to improve its performance, the source added.