A Niche in Time: One Chute

SpaceShipTwo after being released for its final flight on March 31, 2014. (Credit: Virgin Galactic/NTSB)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Pete Siebold and Mike Alsbury heard the sound of hooks disengaging and felt a sharp jolt as SpaceShipTwo was released from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship. Relieved of a giant weight, WhiteKnightTwo shot upward as the spacecraft plunged toward the desert floor.

“Fire,” Siebold said as the shadow of one of WhiteKnightTwo’s wings passed across the cabin.

“Arm,” Alsbury responded. “Fire.”

The pilots were pushed back into their seats as SpaceShipTwo’s nylon-nitrous oxide hybrid engine ignited behind them, sending the ship soaring skyward on a pillar of flames.

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13 Years Ago in Mojave…

Editor’s Note: SpaceShipOne would fly one more time, on Oct. 4, 2004, to claim the $10 million Ansari X Prize, before being retired and shipped off to be placed on permanent display the National Air & Space Museum.

Do you remember the optimism then? Do you recall promises by Burt Rutan and Richard Branson that they would soon inaugurate the era of space tourism with SpaceShipTwo? How it would all happen by 2007 or 2008?

Thirteen years, four deaths, three hospitalizations, one wrecked spaceship and numerous inaccurate predictions later, there has not been a single human suborbital space flight. Not one.

The very elements of SpaceShipOne that Rutan promoted as the safest innovations to come out of the program — the hybrid engine and feather reentry system — figured in the fatalities of the SpaceShipTwo program.

SpaceShipOne was a tremendous engineering achievement. And Scaled is justifiably proud of it.

But, it also turned out to be an extremely fragile thing upon which to base a commercial suborbital space tourism program. It bred a dangerous overconfidence and enshrined some poor engineering choices into the design of SpaceShipTwo.

The hybrid engine took a decade to scale up for SpaceShipTwo. It also claimed three lives in an explosion because Scaled had misplaced confidence in the safety of nitrous oxide.

Scaled Composites also lacked the required expertise to properly address pilot error in a human spaceship. When that was pointed out by FAA safety experts with experience on the space shuttle, George Nield issued a waiver instead of making Scaled perform the analysis properly. Whether a proper analysis would have prevented the loss of SpaceShipTwo Enterprise and Mike Alsbury is something we will never know.

So, this is a rather bittersweet anniversary. Scaled can certainly take pride in its accomplishments. It was the apex of Burt Rutan’s career. But, that pride is mixed with knowledge of all the pain and frustrations that occurred in the decade that followed. The loss of valued colleagues and the destruction of a ship engineers spent years building.

A Look at the History of Suborbital Spaceflight

Neil Armstrong with the X-15 on the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

With Richard Branson once again predicting that Virgin Galactic will fly SpaeShipTwo into space before the end of the year, it seems like a good time to take a look at the history of suborbital spaceflight.

The number of manned suborbital flights varies depending upon the definition you use. The internationally recognized boundary is 100 km (62.1 miles), which is also known as the Karman line. The U.S. Air Force awarded astronaut wings to any pilot who exceeded 80.5 km (50 miles).

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Mojave Journal: Good Rockets are Hard to Find

Stratolaunch carrier aircraft rolled out of its hangar for the first time. (Credit: Stratolaunch)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Checking my messages on Wednesday at LAX after a long flight from back east, I was startled to learn that Paul Allen’s ginormous Stratolaunch aircraft had been rolled out of its hangar for the first time in Mojave while I was in transit.

I had been expecting some official roll-out ceremony later this year ala SpaceShipTwo where the press and public could get a good look at the twin fuselage, WhiteKnightTwo-on-steroids air-launch platform.

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Future Imperfect: The Ansari XPrize, SpaceShipOne & Private Spaceflight

how_make_spaceship_coverHow to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, An Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight
by Julian Guthrie
Penguin Press, 2016
Hardcover, 448 pages
ISBN 978-1-59420-672-6
US $28/Canada $37

Reviewed by Douglas Messier

On Sept. 8, I arrived home at about half past noon to find a package sitting on my doorstep. It was a review copy of a new book by Julian Guthrie about the Ansari XPrize and SpaceShipOne titled, How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, An Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight.

I laughed. The timing was perfect. Ken Brown and I had just spent five hours in the desert — most of them in the rising heat of a late summer day — waiting for WhiteKnightTwo to take off carrying SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity on its first captive carry test flight.

It was the first flight in nearly two years of a SpaceShipTwo vehicle since Unity’s sister ship, VSS Enterprise, had broken up during a Halloween test flight, killing co-pilot Mike Alsbury. Ken and I had been there on that day, too.

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Elon Musk, Wernher Von Braun and Gigantism: What is Old is New Again

Interplanetary Transport System at Enceladus. (Credit: SpaceX)
Interplanetary Transport System at Enceladus. (Credit: SpaceX)

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Elon Musk’s obsession with making giant leaps forward in technology and how the approach has likely contributed to some of the company’s problems. I posited that SpaceX needs fewer leaps and more plateaus so its employees can consolidate what they have learned and get really good at it before moving on to the next level. [SpaceX: Giant Leaps, Deep Troughs But No Plateaus].

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Chuck Yeager: Not a Big Fan of SpaceShipOne

Gen. Chuck Yeager has been doing ask me anything sessions on Twitter over the last few days. If nothing else, he’s been candid. He apparently doesn’t think much of SpaceShipOne.

Mojave Update: August Heat & Virgin Flights

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

With the month of August upon us and no sign of relief from the oppressive desert heat, Mojave has at least one thing to look forward to: the first SpaceShipTwo flights in nearly two years.

Virgin Galactic officials have said they expect to begin flight tests of its second SpaceShipTwo vehicle sometime this month. The test program will begin with captive carry flights aboard the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft followed by glide flights. Powered tests are expected in 2017.

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Entrepreneurial Lingo Lesson: The Pivot

twist_chubby1_disrupt copy
First in an irregular series on entrepreneurial buzz words

Come on let’s pivot again,
Like we did last quarter!
Yeaaah, let’s pivot again,
Like we did last year!

Do you remember when,
ROI was really hummin’,
Yeaaaah, let’s pivot again,
Pivotin’ time is here!

Heeee, and round and round til IPO we go!
Oh, baby, make those investors love us so!

Let’s pivot again,
Like we did last quarter!
Yeaaah, let’s pivot again,
Like we did last year!

There comes a time in the existence of many startups when there an urgent need to change direction. You set up the company to pursue a goal, but for one reason or several — a lack of a market, shortage of investment, regulatory hurdles, a flawed concept — you have to direct all that talent, technology and enthusiasm toward a new objective that will keep the company in operation.

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A Tale of Two Prizes

SpaceShipOne on the floor beside the Spirit of St. Louis of the National Air & Space Museum. (Credit: National Air & Space Museum)
SpaceShipOne on the floor beside the Spirit of St. Louis of the National Air & Space Museum. (Credit: National Air & Space Museum)

Two major flight-related anniversaries are being celebrated this week. Today marks the 89th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic aboard the Spirit of St. Louis. Lucky Lindy took off from New York on this date and arrived in Paris some 33.5 hours later, claiming the $25,000 Orteig Prize.

Wednesday was the 20th anniversary of the launch of X Prize (later Ansari X Prize). Inspired by the Orteig Prize, it offered $10 million for the first privately build vehicle to fly to suborbital space twice within two weeks. The Ansari X Prize was won in October 2004 by a team led by Burt Rutan and Paul Allen with SpaceShipOne.

After Lindbergh’s flight, a public that had previously shunned commercial aviation embraced it with a passion. Following the Ansari X Prize, Richard Branson vowed to begin flying tourists to space aboard a successor vehicle, SpaceShipTwo, within three years. Nearly a dozen years and four deaths later, Branson has yet to fulfill this promise.

The SpaceShipTwo program has now taken longer than it took for NASA to go from President John F. Kennedy proposal to land a man on the moon to the completion of the program with the splashdown of Apollo 17. NASA launched the space shuttle Columbia exactly 20 years after the first spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin.

So, why have things taken so long? And why did one prize succeed beyond the dreams of its sponsor, while the space prize it inspired has promised so few practical results? The answer is a complex one that I addressed back in March in a story titled, “Prizes, Technology and Safety.” I’ve republished the story below with links to other posts in a series about flight safety.

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Boldly Going Where 14 Men Have Gone Before

For nearly a dozen years, Virgin Galactic has used the number of individuals who have flown into space as a target to shoot for once the company began suborbital space tourism service. Virgin promised to double the number, which was around 500 when the company launched in 2004, within the first year of operation. That year was originally targeted for 2007 in the confident days after the success of SpaceShipOne.

That goal has long since faded away, and it’s unlikely Virgin will double the number of space travelers during the first year. In any event, the number of space travelers cited by Virgin has always been a bit misleading. The company’s well heeled customers, who are paying upwards of $250,000 per flight, will actually be joining a much more elite group on their suborbital flights.

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So Exactly How Safe Will SpaceShipTwo Be?

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

Part 5 of 6

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

With the recent roll out of VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic marked a symbolic milestone in its recovery from the October 2014 accident that destroyed the first SpaceShipTwo and killed pilot Mike Alsbury.

Two questions loomed large over the celebrity-studded event. When will it fly? And how safe will it be when it does?

Company officials gave no timeline on the first question. Their answers about SpaceShipTwo’s safety differed significantly from previous claims they made over the last 11.5 years.

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Prizes, Technology and Safety

Charles A. Lindbergh (Credit: Library of Congress)
Charles A. Lindbergh (Credit: Library of Congress)

Part 3 of 6

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

At 10:22 p.m. on May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh brought the Spirit of St. Louis to a safe landing at Le Bourget Aerodrome in Paris. He had just completed the first non-stop New York to Paris airplane flight, a 33.5-hour journey during which he had covered 3,600 statute miles (5,800 km). As soon as the plane stopped, Lindbergh was surrounded by thousands of people who had gathered to welcome him. The exhausted pilot had been awake for 55 hours.

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Early Aviation & the Safety of Space Tourism

Crashed Boeing Model 299 at Wright Field, Ohio in 1934.
Crashed Boeing Model 299 at Wright Field, Ohio in 1934.

Part 2 of 6

“I question whether our insatiable appetite for total safety is serving the needs of the exploring human inside us.”

– Stu Witt, former CEO & General Manager, Mojave Air & Space Port

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

After he won the $10 million Ansari X Prize with SpaceShipOne in October 2004, Scaled Composites Founder Burt Rutan had two goals for the SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism vehicle he was building for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

He vowed the vehicle would be at least 100 times safer than any human spacecraft that had ever flow. And the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would certify the spaceship in a manner similar to way the agency certifies aircraft.

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