Today, Sept. 27, marks the 15th anniversary of Richard Branson announcing the launch of Virgin Galactic Airways. It’s been a long, winding road between that day and today, filled with many broken promises, missed deadlines, fatal accidents and a pair of spaceflights.
This year actually marks a double anniversary: it’s been 20 years since Branson registered the company and began searching for a vehicle the company could use to fly tourists into suborbital space.
Below is a timeline of the important events over that period.
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., April 9, 2019 (Virgin Galactic PR) — The three-person crew from Virgin Galactic’s second space flight have received Commercial Astronaut Wings from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Chief Pilot, Dave Mackay, Lead Pilot trainer, Mike ‘Sooch’ Masucci and Chief Astronaut Instructor, Beth Moses, were presented their wings at the 35th Space Symposium, where it was also announced that Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company (TSC) are to be presented the Space Achievement award later this week.
Two days before Virgin Galactic completed the ninth powered flight of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital program, rocket billionaire and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos threw some shade at billionaire Richard Branson’s rival suborbital space tourism venture. SpaceNewsreports:
Bezos, in the interview, pointed out the altitude difference between the two vehicles. New Shepard has typically exceeded 100 kilometers, an altitude known as the Karman Line, on its test flights. SpaceShipTwo reached a peak altitude of 82.7 kilometers on its most recent test flight Dec. 13, its first above the 50-mile boundary used by U.S. government agencies to award astronaut wings.
“One of the issues that Virgin Galactic will have to address, eventually, is that they are not flying above the Karman Line, not yet,” Bezos said. “I think one of the things they will have to figure out how to get above the Karman Line.”
“We’ve always had as our mission that we wanted to fly above the Karman Line, because we didn’t want there to be any asterisks next to your name about whether you’re an astronaut or not,” he continued. “That’s something they’re going to have to address, in my opinion.”
For those who fly on New Shepard, he said, there’ll be “no asterisks.”
On Friday, Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity flew to 89.9 km (55.87 miles) on its fifth flight test, which was the highest altitude the program has reached to date.
There are two competing definitions of where space begins. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is awarding civilian astronaut wings to anyone who flies above 50 miles (80.4 km). The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) recognizes 100 km (62.1 miles) as the boundary of space, although it is considering lowering the limit to 80 km (49.7 miles).
The FAA awarded astronaut wings to Mark “Forger” Stucky and Frederick “C.J.” Sturckow, who flew VSS Unity above 50 miles in December. The crew of Friday’s flight — pilots David Mackay and Mike ‘Sooch’ Masucci, and chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses — will also qualify for astronaut wings.
New Shepard has flown 10 times without passengers; nine of those flights were above 100 km (62.1 miles). Bezos has said he expects to begin flying people aboard the suborbital spacecraft by the end of this year.
Virgin Galactic pilots Mark “Forger” Stucky and Frederick “C.J.” Sturckow, who were awarded civilian astronaut wings last week, are among 18 pilots who have flown suborbital flights.
The two pilots flew SpaceShipTwo Unity to an altitude of 51.4 miles (82.72 km) on Dec. 13, 2018. That accomplishment qualified them for civilian astronaut wings using an American definition that places the boundary of space at 50 miles (80.46 km).
Washington D.C., USA (7 Feb 2019) — In another historical moment for the commercial spaceflight industry, Virgin Galactic was proud today to see its pilots Mark ‘Forger’ Stucky and ‘CJ’ Sturckow, awarded Commercial Astronaut Wings by the U.S. Department of Transportation in recognition of the company’s ground-breaking first spaceflight from Mojave Air and Space Port CA, on December 13th last year.
There were 15 flight tests of eight suborbital boosters in 2018, including six flights of two vehicles — Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard — that are designed to carry passengers on space tourism rides.
The race to provide launch services to the booming small satellite industry also resulted in nine flight tests of six more conventional boosters to test technologies for orbital systems. Two of the boosters tested are designed to serve the suborbital market as well.
A pair of Chinese startups took advantage of a loosening of government restrictions on launch providers to fly their rockets two times apiece. There was also suborbital flight tests of American, Japanese and South Korean rockets.
Throughout the Space Age, suborbital flight has been the least exciting segment of the launch market. Operating in the shadow of their much larger orbital cousins, sounding rockets carrying scientific instruments, microgravity experiments and technology demonstrations have flown to the fringes of space with little fanfare or media attention.
The suborbital sector has become much more dynamic in recent years now that billionaires have started spending money in it. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic both made significant progress last year in testing New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo, respectively. Their achievements have raised the real possibility of suborbital space tourism flights in 2019. (I know. Promises, promises…. But, this year they might finally really do it. I think.)
Nicholas Schmidle has an interesting profile of Virgin Galactic test pilot Mark Stucky in the New Yorker that sheds some light on what’s been going on at Richard Branson’s space company. I’ve excerpted some interesting passages below.
If you’ve been watching the videos of SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity‘s first three powered flights and thinking to yourself, Gee, it looks like that thing really wants to roll…well, you’d be right. Here’s an account of the first flight on April 5. (more…)
Virgin Galactic plans to conduct the first glide test of the second SpaceShipTwo on Tuesday, Nov. 1. It will be the first flight of the spaceship and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft since a captive carry test on Sept. 8.
The flight, which will take place from the Mojave Air and Space Port, will come two years and 1 day after the first SpaceShipTwo broke up during a powered test flight, killing Scaled Composites pilot Mike Alsbury and injuring pilot Pete Siebold.
Virgin Galactic pilot C.J. Sturckow confirmed the date of the flight test during an event on Saturday at the Explorers Club in New York City, according to SpaceNews reporter Jeff Foust.
Sturckow told attendees Virgin Galactic plans “‘spot check’ the glide flight envelope of SS2 and move into powered flight tests in early 2017,” according to a tweet posted by Foust.
One of the most interesting aspects of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation into the SpaceShipTwo crash was how it pulled back the curtain on what was actually going on in the program being undertaken in Mojave. Over the years, the rhetoric has been frequently at odds with reality.
As far as C.J. Sturckow could tell, everything was going perfectly. Flying an Extra plane at 14,000 feet above Koehn Lake, he and photographer Mark Greenberg watched SpaceShipTwo drop cleanly from WhiteKnightTwo and light its engine. The rocket ignition was “beautiful,” the plume color looked fine, the ship’s trajectory appeared to be right on the mark. And then–
The Mojave Air and Spaceport sits on 3,300 acres of California’s High Desert about 100 miles north of Los Angeles. Since it opened in 1935, the facility had seen multiple uses – rural airfield for the mining industry, World War II Marines Corps training base, U.S. Navy air station and general aviation airport.