Branson Says SpaceShipTwo Will Reach Space Within Weeks

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

Richard Branson is back in the headlines again talking schedules for SpaceShipTwo.

“We should be in space within weeks, not months. And then we will be in space with myself in months and not years,” the Virgin founder and CEO told CNBC’s Nancy’s Hungerford at the Barclays Asia Forum in Singapore Tuesday.

You can read the rest of the interview — in which he repeats the same things he’s been saying for the last 14 years — here.

What I think this means is that another flight test is coming soon. On the last one back in July, they fired the engine for 42 seconds. I would expect the upcoming flight will entail a full engine burn of about 60 seconds. This is a deduction on my part; there’s just not a lot of places to go in terms of burn length.

A full burn would get SpaceShipTwo to some definition of space. The international beginning of space — known as the Karman line — is 100 km (62.1 miles). The U.S. Air Force (USAF) awarded astronaut wings to X-15 pilots who flew to at least 50 miles (80.4 km) during the 1960’s.

Virgin Galactic’s agreement with its ticket holders uses the USAF standard as the minimum altitude promised. Since there are no mile markers up there, the view will be similar but the amount of time in microgravity will be slightly less than if the vehicle gets to the Karman line.

Several additional test flights are expected before Branson boards the first official commercial flight at Spaceport America in New Mexico. At this point, I’m guessing that will happen some time in 2019.

  • ThomasLMatula

    What is sad is that it really doesn’t matter anymore. Sure, it would be the first private astronauts to reach space since SpaceshipOne, and the first Americans to reach space on an American launch vehicle, but since its a dead end technology it would just be a stunt, just as the Ansari X-Prize was a stunt. The world has moved on.

  • Robert G. Oler

    maybe maybe not. my sense is that you and others have far to high expectations for the number of “non government employees” and the type of them that are going to fly in space in orbit in the next 5 to 10 years. My sense is that you and others think things like “DearMoon” are real…and that in under 10 years wow maybe 5 lots of non technical types non “sponsored by governments and company” types are going to fly in space

    my view is that there is not a snowballs chance in Texas during July that any of this will happen.

    in the meantime if Branson can make his show work (and Blue starts flying sub orb paying flights) thats going to be in my view the force multiplier in terms of numbers

    the technology is meaningless. what is meaningful is revenue streams. If Branson or Bezos get one from sub orbital passengers, they are likely to have the big “stream” for the next oh 10 years…or at least 5

    I’ll be very very surprised if Musk or Blue has flown a single “artist type” in the next 5.

  • Kirk

    > … in the next 5.

    Since Dear Moon was announced for 2023, all you are predicting is that it won’t be on schedule. I’d have expected you to be considerably more pessimistic than that.

  • When I worked at SpaceX 2009 – 2011, in Texas, one of the fun things we did was to have a local firm make hundreds of snowballs and bring them in stacks of coolers to summer company parties for us. We would have awesome snowball fights, in Texas, in July…

    I do concede, however, that none of those snowballs made it through to the next morning. : )

  • Robert G. Oler

    oh let me be more clear. I dont expect the “artist” trip to happen anytime in the next 10 years. it is what did Queen call it “an escape from reality”

  • Robert G. Oler

    the snowcone 🙂 mine never made it to the end of the hour 🙂 I ate them

  • Kirk

    Much better!

  • Terry Rawnsley

    I agree that the prizes have basically been stunts. There also seems to be too much emphasis on the “private” aspect while minimizing the real goal of advancing the state of the art. VG is producing a glorified roller coaster and BO is creating one of those rides where the patrons shoot high into the air then drop for a brief second of weightlessness before coming to a safe and gentle stop. Not to criticize Blue as New Shepard was a great test bed for hardware and software that will be used on New Glenn and New Armstrong. Suborbital was never the finish line – just a waypoint on their development map.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Which is the key distinction between New Shepard and SpaceshipTwo. One is a stepping stone to greater goals, the other an inglorious dead end. Pity that Sir Richard Brandon backed the wrong horse.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    I’m really a little surprised that Branson stuck with it this long. Ah, the power of ego.

  • Michael Halpern

    New Sheppard is useful for micro gravity experiments as well

  • Douglas Messier

    It’s difficult to imagine Branson can make a profit on SpaceShipTwo given the enormous cost of development and the relatively high cost of flying the vehicle. You have to replace the engine after each flight. It’s not fully reusable.

    Blue Origin will probably make money on the New Shepard flights, although its development cost has been pretty high. Bezos doesn’t really need to make a profit on it. The point is to help validate technology and operations for the orbital vehicles.

  • Michael Halpern

    Assuming nothing causes a sudden hault, i would give it to 2025, few external factors like those that have delayed crew Dragon and Falcon Heavy, as a result at least cargo BFR should be test flying as full stack, in the 2021 timeframe allowing for a couple test BFS and/or BFB experiencing RUD, getting it past “experimental” phase and getting approval from the FAA to fly passengers is a different story and likely the long pole.

  • Michael Halpern

    And provide a service between parabolic micro-g flight and traditional sounding rockets or ISS for micro-g experiments, something like New Sheppard may be able to replace sounding rockets because it keeps the payload intact and is fully reusable

  • duheagle

    What I said in a comment on your SLS story above goes double for SpaceShipTwo stories. You certainly must cringe every time one of these rattles into your ‘In’ box.

  • duheagle

    We’ll have to agree to continue to disagree about BFR and ‘Dear Moon.’ The next 18 months should provide sufficient evidence to support or refute a case as to whether that mission is likely to be flown on its notional schedule. Though, given your obdurate skepticism about something as relatively uncontroversial as the economic and engineering case for reusability having already been made, I expect it will take rather more than 18 months of quick progress on BFR to yield a concession from you on that point. Let’s hope both of us are still around in 2023 to find out for sure.

  • P.K. Sink
  • Paul_Scutts

    I wish VG all the success and a safe experience of all those who fly in SS2.

  • delphinus100

    Having done a few already. If your experiments/payloads *don’t* require a human presence, but do require intact recovery, a New Shepard obviously *can* still fly unmanned, even after they do start carrying people.

    SS2 *must* at least have a local pilot…

  • Robert G. Oler

    LOL you fan boys are all alike. reusability is an economic winner the problem is that folks like you have no idea what reuseability means 🙂

    here is a pro tip. this morning I will take my triple seven to the UK, spend a delightful hour on the ground having tea and then take it back to istanbul.

    that is reusable. when we get “there” then you have something thats a price point breaker…we are a long way from there

    there are intermediate steps along the way for space vehicles. but BFR needs a few to make happen

    the next 18 months will bring more descoping, more control issues and more delays AND worse a Falcon9 first stage will still not have flown 10 times. ( a little less certain of that one)

  • Robert G. Oler

    it probably all depends on the motor cost…that would be my guess

  • Smokey_the_Bear

    “You have to replace the engine after each flight. It’s not fully reusable.”
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/2a29c7d0df58374330bcb3473c535bd939756581b2143b437cfbadcadccbc517.jpg

  • Robert G. Oler

    maybe… I think more likely 10 years at best

  • Michael Halpern

    Doubtful they are building the most complicated part now for testing

  • Michael Halpern

    I would agree with you if they weren’t building flight hardware and the launch facility as we speak. Due to f9 upgrades we can only really count FH development as having started beyond the paper “strap 3 f9s together” concept in 2014, so 3.5 years roughly, in addition bigger ≠ more complicated, so from an engineering perspective their biggest obstacles will be large CF structures, the reusable second stage/orbiter and on orbit cryogenic fluid transfer. And that last isn’t needed out the gate. Nothing else is particularly ground breaking other than Raptor which is already developed, it is just bigger.

  • Robert G. Oler

    they are not doing any of that right now. ie building the most complicated part.

    what they are doing is building some ground test articles that are in no way related to flight hardware other than well that is where you start

    the obstacles for them are enormous not the least of which is the BFS reentry profile which is well all computer simulation…

    the program will be many times more difficult than FH which took quite a bit longer than they estimated, cost a lot more…and compared to BFS was easy

    10 years 5=7 billion just to get to flight for “something”

    Musk and SpaceX have done interesting things…but BFR is in a class of its own in technological history

  • Robert G. Oler

    Look, when Musk gets to 3 than 10 on a F9 first stage we can all cheeer and I’ll be the loudest one cheering. I dont start early…I am not a fan boy, I dont have to believe, something I developed in Test Pilots school…I have to see things perform to say they work 🙂

  • Michael Halpern

    The upper is more complicated and it well fly, its cheaper and more useful than finding a wind tunnel big enough for it,

  • Michael Halpern

    3 rd flight of an f9 is expected this year, 10 probably mid next year

  • Robert G. Oler

    if that is what they are planning on…that is foolish

  • Robert G. Oler

    not a chance at least for the latter

  • Michael Halpern

    Not really no wind tunnel exists that can fit it, they had to build a shuttle mock up out of wood for testing there, and computer modeling has come a long way. SpaceX likes to test with flight hardware as much as possible “test like you fly” the best way to do that is to fly

  • Michael Halpern

    Why not? Right now they are just doing in depth analysis of how they fatigue, no major changes should be necessary to get to 10.

  • Robert G. Oler

    they are going to build a thermal protection system and test it for the first time in flight?

  • Robert G. Oler

    I bet you Bransoms ride is cheaper to operate than NS

  • Michael Halpern

    They are going to use the same tps or a derivative thereof that they use on Dragon, and they can test it in a furnace.

  • Robert G. Oler

    not a chance sorry

  • Michael Halpern

    The primary TPS they will use for BFS is PICA-X obviously improved over iterations that have flown but in the same family, they will likely try to test it in the same kilm they use to make it, though for more extreme testing they could take it to McGregor and point an engine at it. It will be mostly identical tiles most likely, until you get to the nose, being mostly cylindrical, it won’t need a lot of variation in shapes

  • Robert G. Oler

    look if they make it happen great…I know you need to believe. I dont I deal in facts…they have a lot of problems to solve before they get to BFR/BFS…I hope it works. I am very doubtful. Musk is long on aspirational…so far no revolution

  • Michael Halpern

    Confirmed by SpaceX official statements.

  • Michael Halpern

    I believe based on what I see, I KNOW that the schedule will slip and the initial version may only be able to go out to GTO though possibly just MEO, but I also know that SpaceX has proven to be excellent at iterating, developing things on comparable miniscule monetary resources compared to everyone else, and doing it fairly quickly, as far as the rest of the industry is concerned SpaceX develops at extremely rapid pace.

  • Robert G. Oler

    see how it works out. I put almost everything that SpaceX officials say with a grain of salt. Musk says a lot of things that are “hopeful” at best.

    see how it works out. I am impressed that they are recovering first stages…I hope it works out for them and us…I will cheer when it does

  • duheagle

    Obviously, it’s possible to do subscale and component tests on the ground. But at full scale, flying it was how the TPS for Dragon was tested. The same is true of the Orion heat shield for that matter. There is no facility in the world capable of an all-up full-scale TPS test on even a Dragon-size vehicle.

  • duheagle

    I don’t think we know whether those parts being built in the tent are for ground tests or for flight. I’m inclined to think they’re prototype flight articles as SpaceX has no facility capable of doing the sort of ground testing SLS’s big bits and pieces are supposed to be subjected to. SpaceX seems to think – correctly I believe – that building a lot of expensive single-use testing infrastructure makes much less sense than just instrumenting the heck out of the thing, flying it, and, if it crashes, building a better one and flying that. That philosophy has stood them in pretty good stead from both a fiscal and an engineering standpoint.

  • duheagle

    Not sure how you’d ever settle the bet, but I’d be fascinated to hear how you think replacing an entire engine, that constitutes a significant fraction of the total vehicle mass, after each flight is going to beat doing a walk-around, setting the capsule back on top and re-tanking with LH2 and LOX.

  • Michael Halpern

    They did do sample tests with PICA-X before flying it in the kilm used to make it in the first place.

  • Michael Halpern

    There’s no test environment more accurate and capable than the real world

  • Terry Rawnsley

    That was the first thing I thought of.

  • Michael Halpern

    NS also doesn’t require test pilots

  • windbourne

    But BFR has been under full development for over 5 years as well as minor development for over 10 years. And much of its technology was developed with F9/FH.

    I suspect that they are a lot closer than you give them credit for.