Virgin Galactic Inks $4.5 Million Deal With NASA for Research Flights

Gear down. (Photo: Mark Greenberg)

VG PR – MOJAVE, CA – Virgin Galactic has confirmed an order from NASA for up to three charter flights on its privately-built spacecraft to provide opportunities for engineers, technologists, and scientific researchers to conduct cutting-edge experiments in suborbital space. The agreement calls for NASA to charter a full flight from Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial spaceline, and includes options for two additional charter flights. If all options are exercised, the contract value is $4.5 million.

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Virgin Galactic to Begin Commercial Space Tourism Flights in…..

Gear down. (Photo: Mark Greenberg)

Attenborough: [Launching our first commercial flight] 18 months to two years from now is achievable, but that isn’t to say that we will achieve it. The only thing that will extend that expected timeline is if something comes up during the remainder of the test flight program.

Or so Virgin Galactic’s Commercial Director Stephen Attenborough tells The Wall Street Journal’s Chun Han Wong . The company’s founder, Richard Branson, has been making similar predictions for years now.

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Virgin Galactic’s Chief Test Pilot Takes Controls of WhiteKnightTwo for First Time

VG PR — To date, all test flights of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo have been piloted by Scaled Composite’s cadre of talented test pilots.

WhiteKnightTwo took to the air for the 72nd time yesterday (8/31/2011); it was a special flight for Virgin Galactic because at the controls, for the very first time, was our own Chief Test pilot, Dave Mackay. Dave joined Virgin Galactic in 2009 following a high-flying aviation career as an RAF test pilot and a Virgin Atlantic Captain.

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Virgin Galactic vs. XCOR: Two Very Different Approaches

Space Up Houston August 2011 from Schipul – The Web Marketing Co. on Vimeo.

Virgin Galactic’s Will Pomerantz and XCOR Aerospace’s Khaki McKee both gave updates on their companies’ suborbital vehicles during the recent Houston SpaceUp conference. For the benefit of those who don’t have time to watch the full video above, I’ve summarized their presentations below in a convenient side-by-side table to allow for an easy comparison.

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Video: NMSA’s Christina Anderson Talks About Spaceport America

New Mexico Spaceport Authority Executive Director Christine Anderson talks about the development and future of Spaceport America. Some highlights from the El Paso Times article:

The first phase of construction of Spaceport America, New Mexico’s $209 million commercial spaceflight launch complex, is 90 percent complete.

Virgin Galactic, the spaceport’s anchor tenant, plans to dedicate the terminal-hangar sometime in October….

Sir Richard Branson, the owner of Virgin Galactic, has not said exactly when the aerospace company will take space tourists from its future headquarters at Spaceport America on suborbital flights to the edge of space. At his request, the terminal-hangar has been named the Virgin Galactic Gateway To Space.

Various space aviation experts have suggested that Virgin Galactic may launch its first space tourist flights sometime in 2013…..

Anderson is convinced that the spaceport will eventually rely less on the state government as a primary source of money. “Our goal is to be self-sustaining,” she said.

Read the full story.

Virgin Galactic to Fly NASA Payloads to Space

VSS Enterprise on its first test flight. (Photo: Mark Greenberg)

VG PR — Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial spaceline, owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS, has been selected by NASA to provide flight opportunities for engineers, technologists and scientific researchers to fly technology payloads into space. This arrangement marks the first time that NASA has contracted with a commercial partner to provide flights into space on a suborbital spacecraft, and represents another important endorsement of the value of regular commercial space access for a wide range of science and educational applications.

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SwRI Scientists Prep for Suborbital Science Missions

SWRI — PR Boulder, Colo. — July 25, 2011 — Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) announced in February that it had contracted multiple suborbital flights for its own astronaut payload specialists as part of a larger effort to promote the development of commercial human spaceflight. Preparations for these flights are proceeding and will be flown on a combination SwRI manifest of XCOR Lynx I and Virgin Galactic SpaceShip2 vehicles. The Lynx I missions will reach altitudes of about 200,000 feet; the SpaceShip 2 missions will reach altitudes near 350,000 feet.

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Spaceship Company Ramps Up in Mojave

The Spaceship Company in Mojave is ramping up to produce WhiteKnightTwos and SpaceShipTwos. We have this report from Aviation Week:

TSC was initially tasked with making one WK2 and four SS2s for Virgin Galactic, and Operations Director Enrico Palermo says: “I’m confident we’ll be building more.” Together with the first WK2 and SS2 already built and in test, Virgin plans to operate an initial fleet of two carriers and five spacecraft, though hopes are high that other “spaceline” customers will emerge.

For now, Palermo says, “our blinders are set on serving our first customer, and getting these spacecraft flying.” With flight tests of the first SS2 accelerating and the first rocket-powered flights expected in coming months, the configuration of the production variants of both spacecraft and carrier aircraft are close to finalization. “WK2 is flying and meeting its objectives, so that’s more or less set,” says Joe Brennan, TSC vehicle production manager, who adds that the company is also “pretty happy” with the minor design changes on the SS2 required so far.

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Hey Aussies, Win a Trip into Space

VIRGIN PR — Virgin Money Australia is giving one lucky Australian the chance to fulfil their childhood dream and travel in to space on a Virgin Galactic flight.

The competition is open to all current and new Virgin Money Australia customers (Any Australian resident who holds an active Virgin Money Australia product before 01 October 2011 is eligible to enter).

Enter the competition now at Virgin Money Australia

The winner will be announced on 15 October 2011.

Branson: SpaceShipTwo Will Fly Passengers in 10-15 Months

Will Whitehorn gives a pat on the back to Richard Branson as he greets Virgin Galactic ticketholders during the Oshkosh air show in July 2009.

Virgin Galactic’s Founder says that commercial suborbital flights will take place between May and October 2012:

Sir Richard Branson said that the reason he established Virgin Galactic was because he ‘got sick sick of waiting for NASA.’ He confirmed that space flights for the public will commence in ’10 to 15 months.’ Another endeavour after this milestone will be to launch ‘a 2 to 3 hour London to Australia flight’ via space.

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Branson: SS2 Will Be a Clean Lean Green Flying Machine

BusinessDay.co.nz has a Q&A with Richard Branson in which the British billionaire promotes the “greener” nature of the WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo combo:

We should no longer rely on old, expensive, “dirty” technology to transport satellites into space. The industry must be modernised and made more sustainable, both for financial reasons and for the health of the planet. In response to this challenge, we have been developing a greener solution in Mojave, California — one that will have less impact on the environment and will be more cost effective. Our two-step launch process, which does not employ rockets until the aircraft reaches the stratosphere, uses less energy than other launch systems that rely on rockets to lift off from the ground.

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Attenborough: Virgin Galactic in “Final Stretch”

Gear down. (Photo: Mark Greenberg)

Businessworld has a Q&A with Virgin Galactic’s Stephen Attenborough, who says that he expects the company to begin commercial flights by 2012. Some key excerpts:

When will we see the first human going on a private space flight?

…The big aircraft has finished its test flights and it has performed flawlessly. The spaceship is at the glide flight path of its programme because it is a reusable vehicle. We will probably have 5-6 glide flights. Then, later this year, we expect to test the rocket launcher for the first time. As soon as the propulsion tests start, provided the first couple of tests go well, we will undertake the first space flight.

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Dizzee Rascal Wants to Go Where No Rapper Has Gone Before

Rapper Dizzee Rascal. (Credit: Tuomas Vitikainen)

British rapper Dizzee Rascal has become the latest high profile figure to join the ranks of Virgin Galactic’s celebritynauts:

In a recent interview with Britain’s Esquire magazine, Rascal said that he has been talking to his friend Sam Branson, son of the famed British entrepreneur, about reserving a spot on one of Virgin Galactic’s future commercial space flight. He even went as far as to say that he hopes to have his cremated ashes spread out in space.

“I’ve asked Sam to reserve my place and I meant it,” he said. “When I die, I want my ashes scattered in space. I just love the possibilities of what could happen. I know it sounds a bit nerdy, but your particles could merge with something.”

Nerdy is one word for it. For those not up on British rap artists, here’s a brief bio from Wikipedia:

Dylan Kwabena Mills (born 1 October 1985), better known by his stage name Dizzee Rascal, is an English rapper, songwriter and record producer. His music is a blend of garage, hip hop, grime, ragga, pop and electronic music, with eclectic samples and more exotic styles. Best known for his number-one hits “Dance wiv Me”, “Bonkers”, “Holiday”, “Dirtee Disco” & “Shout”, his debut album, Boy in da Corner, won him the 2003 Mercury Prize. Follow-up albums Showtime, Maths + English and Tongue n’ Cheek have all been critically acclaimed and certified gold, the latter going platinum for sales exceeding 300,000 units.

Maybe Dizzee will be on the same flight as Australian business manager Wayne Glynne, who won a ticket to space aboard SpaceShipTwo as part of IBM’s Destination X competition. Tickets to space are raffled off to sales staff who sell IBM’s System X at values of more than $100,000.

A father of three, Glynne was “wrestling with the decision” as to whether he would accept the prize.

“I’ve only told my wife, I haven’t told my kids yet. I’ll sit down with them this evening and go through the [Galactic] DVD. My youngest is nine and my eldest is 15, so they will absolutely understand what this means.

“I need a little bit more information before I make a commitment one way or another. I am very excited.”

Best of luck to both Dizzee and Wayne.