Mojave Journal: The Ansari X Prize’s Awkward Family Reunion

Ansari X Prize 10th anniversary panel discussion on Oct. 4, 2014.
Ansari X Prize 10th anniversary panel discussion on Oct. 4, 2014.

One Year Ago, the Ansari X Prize Turned 10
It Was an Uncomfortable Birthday

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The planes kept coming and coming. One after another, they swooped out of a blue desert sky and touched down on the runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port. By mid-morning there were at least a dozen private jets stretched along the flight line running east from the Voyager restaurant toward the control tower. And even more were on their way.

And to what did Mojave owe this ostentatious display of wealth by the 1 percenters? They had come to the sun-splashed spaceport last Oct. 4 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Ansari X Prize. A decade earlier, Burt Rutan and his Paul Allen-funded team had won $10 million for sending the first privately-built manned vehicle into space twice within a two-week period.

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Virgin Galactic Focused on Larger Satellite Launch Vehicle

Artist's conception of WhiteKnightTwo with LauncherOne (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Artist’s conception of WhiteKnightTwo with LauncherOne (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Galactic is developing a rocket more powerful than LauncherOne to fulfill a recent order for 39 launches from its global satellite Internet partner OneWeb, according to sources familiar with the program.

LauncherTwo will use Virgin Galactic’s largest liquid fuel engine, NewtonThree, in its first stage, according to sources that insisted upon anonymity. A new engine, NewtonFour, will be developed for the second stage.

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Flashback: Virgin Galactic Announces Switch From Rubber to Nylon Engine

RocketMotorTwo firing. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
RocketMotorTwo firing. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Parabolic Arc Flashback: One year ago, Virgin Galactic announced it changing SpaceShipTwo’s propulsion system from a rubber hybrid to a nylon hybrid engine due to demonstrated better performance. The news was announced on a Friday at the start of long holiday weekends in the U.S. and Britain, a perfect time to dump news when neither reporters nor the public are paying much attention. Sierra Nevada, by the way, was blindsided that their rubber engine was being dropped and their lucrative agreement was going away.

Today, the nylon engine decision is being re-evaluated due to performance. The company recently revealed it is testing both hybid engines again, and it might go back to using the rubber one. That means the company still doesn’t know how its going to power its spacecraft despite being nearly 11 years into the SpaceShipTwo program. That explains why it is taking as long as it is.

MOJAVE, Calif., May 23, 2014 (Virgin Galactic PR) – Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial spaceline which is owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi’s aabar Investments PJS, has selected a polyamide-based fuel grain to power its hybrid rocket motor for the remainder of the test flight program and start of commercial operations. This decision follows numerous ground test firings and is supported by data collected over an extensive development program.

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Aabar Investments Non-Committal on Continuing Virgin Galactic Investment

SpaceShipTwo disintegrates as its two tail booms fall away. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)
SpaceShipTwo disintegrates as its two tail booms fall away. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

An update on Abu Dhabi’s investment in Virgin Galactic.

The Abu Dhabi fund which owns a major stake in Virgin Galactic will wait for results of the probe into last week’s fatal crash before deciding on its commitment to the project, a source with knowledge of the matter said.

The backing of deep-pocketed Aabar Investments, run by the Abu Dhabi government, may be crucial to Virgin Galactic as it struggles to recover from the accident, which killed one test pilot and left another seriously injured. “As an investor, Aabar is concerned of course. It is a challenge – nothing can be decided until investigations are over,” the source said, declining to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject. “For now, it is a wait-and-watch situation.”

Asked if Aabar was still committed to Virgin Galactic, the source said only: “There is time to make an assessment of the future strategy.”

The company invested $390 million in Virgin Galactic and owns 37.8 percent of the company.

Prior to the accident, sources told Parabolic Arc that Virgin Galactic was under serious pressure to fly to space or Aabar would not continue investing in the company.

It’s not entirely clear what waiting “for the results of the probe” means. If they wait for the results of the NTSB investigation, that could be an entire year. Of course, they could make a decision earlier if word comes back before the probe is complete as to the root cause of the accident. Virgin is also working on a recovery plan and hopes to begin flight tests of a second SpaceShipTwo vehicle by summer 2015.

Grey Goose Becomes Official Vodka Supplier to Virgin Galactic

Richard Branson, GREY GOOSE creator and Maître de Chai François Thibault, and George Whitesides toast to a new partnership. (Credit: Grey Goose)     Richard Branson, Grey Goose creator and Maître de Chai François Thibault, and George Whitesides toast to a new partnership. (Credit: Grey Goose)
Richard Branson, Grey Goose creator and Maître de Chai François Thibault, and George Whitesides toast to a new partnership. (Credit: Grey Goose)

HAMILTON, Bermuda, September 23, 2014 (Grey Goose/Virgin Galactic PR) — GREY GOOSE®, the world’s leading super premium vodka, announces today its official partnership with Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial passenger flight into space. Formed from a shared philosophy that extraordinary achievement comes from acting on your beliefs, the partnership was revealed this evening by Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides, Global Category Director Premium White Spirits Ben Farlow and GREY GOOSE creator and Maître de Chai François Thibault, at the Rose Space Center and Planetarium in New York.

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Virgin Galactic Promotes Doug Shane to TSC President

Doug_Shane
Doug Shane

MOJAVE, Calif. – July 29th, 2014 – The Spaceship Company (TSC), the space manufacturing venture owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi’s aabar Investments PJS, announced today that Doug Shane has been named President. TSC, the sister company of Virgin Galactic, is responsible for manufacturing the full fleet of Galactic’s innovative SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo space vehicles and has built extensive capabilities in all aspects of aerospace vehicle design, analysis, fabrication and test.

Shane will continue to report to George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company.

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Virgin Galactic Gears Up for Resumption of Flight Tests

WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo on the tarmac on Wednesday, July 23, 2014. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo on the tarmac on Wednesday, July 23, 2014. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Update: No flight on Friday, but there was a hybrid engine test of about 60 seconds on one of the test stands that reportedly went well.

After a six-month gap in flights, it looks as if SpaceShipTwo will once again fly in the Mojave sky, possibly as early as Friday morning.

On Wednesday, SpaceShipTwo was outside on the tarmac underneath its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship for what Virgin Galactic described as a “dry run” for upcoming test flights. There is a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) indicating that the Mojave Air and Space Port’s tower will be open early on Friday morning. It’s possible this is being done to accommodate a SpaceShipTwo test flight, although sometimes the tower opens early for other reasons.

If there is a flight tomorrow, my best guess is it will involve a captive carry or un-powered drop test to evaluate modifications that have been made to SpaceShipTwo. But, perhaps they will surprise us with something more ambitious.

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Space Conferences, Engine Claims and Silly Putty

SpaceShipTwo in powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo in powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Over the years, I’ve heard many speakers at various space conferences and events say all sorts of things that I felt…oh, comment on dit?…stretched the truth like Silly Putty. Yes, that’s a polite way to put it.

After a while, I’ve become quite numb to it all — the hype, promises, publicity stunts, optimistic schedules that get blown away like fallen leaves on a windy Mojave day. By this point, most of it just passes over me without meriting so much as a mention.

But, sometimes I hear something that stretches the rhetorical Silly Putty beyond the breaking point. I had just such an experience three weeks ago at the Space Tech Expo in Long Beach, Calif.

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Lucky Emirati to Win Space Tourism Flight Aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo

Looking back as SpaceShipTwo's rocket engine fires during the third powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Looking back as SpaceShipTwo’s rocket engine fires during the third powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic CEO and President George Whitesides has announced a spaceflight contest for one lucky resident of the United Arab Emirates:

“Aabar Investments and Virgin Galactic are pleased to announce they have opened up one slot for an Emirati to travel into space onboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. These slots currently sell for $250 000. So, you can imagine it’s a huge opportunity for the lucky winner. Aabar Investments will be staging a competition, together with its parent company, IPIC, here in the UAE. The specifics of the competition and the terms and conditions are still to be finalized. For both companies, this is an ideal way for us to give back to the community.”

Aabar Investments, which is owned by the Abu Dhabi government, has invested $390 million in Virgin Galactic and owns 37.8 percent of the space tourism company.

Whitesides: First Spaceflight on Schedule for This Year

George Whitesides
George Whitesides

Aabar Investments, the Abu Dhabi government company which owns 37.8 percent of Virgin Galactic, release the following Q&A today with Galactic CEO and President George Whitesides.

What brings you to the UAE?

We’re here for two events. The first was the Global Aerospace Summit. Secondly, we had a board meeting with our fellow Virgin Galactic shareholders, Aabar Investments, in their parent company’s, International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC), HQ building.

Is this your first time in Abu Dhabi?

We are co-owned by Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments. Naturally, with significant Abu Dhabi ownership, represented on our Board, we have been frequent visitors since Aabar made its initial investment in [2010]. We are very proud of our Emirati connections and continue to benefit from Aabar Investments’ ownership.

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Virgin Galactic Mulling Deeper Partnership With Abu Dhabi Government

IMG_9540_550
Will the Abu Dhabi government become even more deeply involved in Virgin Galactic?

That’s the question this week as Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides revealed that Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism company is in talks with Mubadala Development Company about a possible supplier relationship.

Mubadala, which is a wholly-owned investment vehicle for Abu Dhabi’s government, owns Mubadala Aerospace, which manufactures and supplies parts for commercial jets built by Boeing and Airbus.

Asked if Mubadala could supply parts or build any part of Virgin Galactic’s commercial spacecraft fleet, Whitesides said, “We’ve had good conversations with Mubadala and other stakeholders in the UAE and we will see where those conversations go.”

However, he added that he “won’t get into the details of those discussions.”

The Abu Dhabi government has invested $390 million in Virgin Galactic through Aabar Investments, which it also owns. Aabar holds a 37.8% share in Virgin Galactic.

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Branson: Virgin Plans Reusable Replacement for SS2 Hybrid Engine

Sir Richard Branson speaks to a group of future astronauts at the FAITH Hangar of Virgin Galactic in Mojave, CA September 25, 2013 in Mojave, CA. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Sir Richard Branson speaks to a group of future astronauts at the FAITH Hangar of Virgin Galactic in Mojave, CA September 25, 2013 in Mojave, CA. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Over in Space News, Irene Klotz has an interesting Q&A with Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson that was apparently conducted during the gathering here in Mojave back at the end of September.  There are a few interesting bits of news in it.

A Reusable Replacement Engine

Branson says Virgin Galactic plans to bring down the $250,000 ticket cost by replacing the single-use hybrid engine with a reusable system.

“One of the things we’re doing here is trying to make everything much more affordable. So for instance, the initial rocket which I’ll be flying on to space will be thrown away afterward. Within six to nine months, we will be using rockets that will have capability of being used maybe up to 1,000 times, but definitely up to 100 times. That will bring the cost of space travel down dramatically.”

Unless they have somehow developed a reusable hybrid system (highly unlikely), this statement points to a liquid fuel replacement engine.

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Video of SpaceShipTwo’s Second Powered Flight

MOJAVE, Calif. (VG PR) – Today, Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial spaceline owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi’s aabar Investments PJS, successfully completed the second rocket-powered, supersonic flight of its passenger carrying reusable space vehicle, SpaceShipTwo (SS2). In addition to achieving the highest altitude and greatest speed to date, the test flight demonstrated the vehicle’s full technical mission profile in a single flight for the first time, including a high altitude deployment of the unique wing “feathering” re-entry mechanism. All of the test objectives were successfully completed.

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Space Tourism Flights from Abu Dhabi Possible Within Three Years

SpaceShipTwo in powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo in powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic’s Steve Landeene is over at the Global Space and Satellite Forum in Abu Dhabi this week, where he talked about the company’s plans for a spaceport there. The highlights:

  • Space tourists could begin flying into space from Abu Dhabi beginning in the 2015-2016 time frame.
  • A decision is still pending on whether to fly from an existing airport or to build a spaceport from scratch.
  • “The most likely way forward is phased approach, starting with an existing infrastructure and then migration as you become more established.”
  • No regulatory framework yet exists in the United Arab Emirates to support spaceflight.
  • ITAR and MTCR are hurdles to exporting SpaceShipTwo, WhiteKnightTwo and LauncherOne overseas.
  • There is a possibility that SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo could be manufactured in the UAE.
  • Virgin Galactic is working with Khalifa University on developing an educational program that would fly experiments into space.

Aabar Investments, a company owned by the Abu Dhabi government, has put up most of the money for the development of SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo. Aabar has invested $490 million in Virgin Galactic and owns 37.8 percent of the company. The investment includes $390 million for an equity share in Virgin Galactic and $100 million to fund LauncherOne.

Read the full story.

Virgin Galactic Restarts LauncherOne Project

LauncherOne. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Summary

  • WhiteKnightTwo launched rocket will delivery 500 pounds (225 kg.) to LEO for less than $10 million by 2016
  • Customers include Spaceflight Services, Planetary Resources, Skybox Imaging, and GeoOptics Inc.
  • Surrey  Satellite Technology and Sierra Nevada Corporation to create spacecraft optimized for LauncherOne
  • SpaceShipTwo to begin powered flights by end of this year
  • Virgin has deposits from 529 clients for suborbital spaceflights

FARNBOROUGH, UNITED KINGDOM (VG PR) – Today during the Farnborough International Air Show 2012, Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial spaceline, announced “LauncherOne,” a new air-launched rocket specifically designed to deliver small satellites into orbit. With substantial funding already raised from Virgin Galactic’s partner aabar Investments PJS, and with commercial flights of this new orbital launch vehicle expected to begin by 2016, Virgin Galactic aims to offer frequent and dedicated launches at the world’s lowest prices. Virgin Galactic also announced that four private companies have already put down deposits as future LauncherOne customers, expressing their intent to purchase a total of several dozen launches, which would exceed the level of early commitment of any previous new launch vehicle.

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