Branson Ramps Up SpaceShipTwo Hype, Again; Test Flight Coming Soon

Richard Branson and George Whitesides gave out at SpaceShipTwo after it came to a stop on Runway 12 after Unity’s first glide flight in December 2016. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Richard Branson is ramping up the hype again for his human spaceflight program.

CNN is here at the Mojave Air and Space Port today, doing live reports from Virgin Galactic’s FAITH facility, where the company builds and preps SpaceShipTwo and its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, for flights.

And Branson is predicting SpaceShipTwo will fly to some definition of space by Christmas. That means they will drop the vehicle and light the engine for roughly 1 minute for the first time in an effort to reach at least 50 miles (80.46 km/264,000 ft) in altitude.

We’ve all heard this before, of course. Branson was publicizing the hell out of SpaceShipTwo back in fall 2014, predicting he would be in space  on the first commercial flight within months. Then they would start flying more than 700 people who signed up. (CNN says the number is now down to about 600.)

Then SpaceShipTwo Enterprise crashed during a flight test on Oct. 31, 2014, killing co-pilot Mike Alsbury. It took Virgin Galactic about three years to get back to the same point in the flight test program with the second vehicle, Unity.

It was the second major setback for the program. In 2007 — the year Branson predicted commercial service would begin — three engineers were killed in a test stand explosion. Redesigning the nitrous oxide tank they were testing took years.

After more than a decade of delays and two fatal accidents, another space mogul might let the pilots fly the vehicle and hype the results afterward. But, that’s not the way Branson rolls. So, CNN is here today to preview the flight.

Branson is hyping an actual planned test this time. Barring any problems in the weeks ahead, we will see a flight before Dec. 21. At that point, everyone will take off for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, and the spaceport will become virtually a ghost town.

Virgin Galactic Chief Pilot David Mackay and test pilot Mark Stucky have flown the previous powered flights. I’m guessing they’ll be in the cockpit again this time for the program’s most challenging and dangerous test to date.

SpaceShipTwo Unity last flew four months ago. During its third powered flight on July 26, the vehicle reached 170,800 ft. (52 km/32.3 miles) and Mach 2.47 after firing its engine for 42 seconds.

Since the last flight test, engineers have been wrestling with several unidentified problems that were discovered on SpaceShipTwo.

Richard Branson Pops into Mojave to Check on Progress of Spaceflight Quest

Mojave Air and Space Port on a rare cloudy day. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Some day, Richard Branson might fly to space, gaze out the window, and see stars with his naked eyes, unencumbered by the Earth’s atmosphere or the optics of a telescope.

For the moment, he has to settle for his own fame and a star encased in concrete along the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The British billionaire was in Los Angeles last month for the unveiling of his star on that famous boulevard. While he was in the neighborhood, he popped up to the Mojave Air and Space Port, where Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company are working to make his dream of spaceflight a reality.

Given his early October prediction that Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity would fly to space in “weeks, not months,” one might have expected him to be here to view a spaceflight he has been promising for the past 14 years.

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Video: Branson Talks Virgin Galactic Again

Editor’s Note: Every time I hear Branson talk about Virgin Galactic, I’m always reminded of Lord Whorfin’s speech in Buckaroo Bonzai: Across the 8th Dimension.

Lord John Whorfin: Where are we going?
Red Lectroids: Planet Ten!
Lord John Whorfin: When?
Red Lectroids: Real soon!

Their subsequent attempt to break on through doesn’t go exactly according to plan.

“We’re not in the 8th dimension. We’re over New Jersey,” a Red Lectroid reports dryly after their vehicle crashes through the wall of Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems. (The company’s motto is, “The Future Begins Tomorrow.”)

Branson recently said that SpaceShipTwo Unity would be in space in weeks, not months, implying that a flight featuring a full-duration engine burn of about one minute was imminent.

He’s made similar predictions before without Virgin Galactic blasting a spaceship past the Karman line. Nicholas Schmidle asked him about it for a profile he did for The New Yorker of pilot Mark Stucky titled, “Virgin Galactic’s Rocket Man,”

Branson admitted to me, “It would be embarrassing if someone went back over the last thirteen years and wrote down all my quotes about when I thought we would be in space.” But he also defended his approach: “If you are an optimist and you talk ahead of yourself, then everybody around you has got to catch up and try to get there.”

Huh. So all this…um…stuff — for lack of a better word — he’s been saying for 14 years was to keep the program moving along? To inspire the employees? Did it work?

And how should we judge his latest schedule pronouncement? Is it an accurate prediction of things to come? Or an effort to motivate the troops to overcome whatever issues they might have discovered during the previous three powered flight tests of Unity?

Time will tell. It’s been three months since the last flight test at the end of July. And the fourth anniversary of the loss of SpaceShipOne Enterprise is coming up on Halloween. That anniversary is, emotionally speaking, like a bad case of acid reflux. Brings up a lot of sad memories and emotions.

The Adventures of SpaceShipTwo: Inverted Flight, Wonky Gyros & an Impatient Billionaire

SpaceShipTwo glides to a landing at Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

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.
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Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Powered Flight Set for Thursday Morning

SpaceShipTwo flies under power for the third time in January 2014. (Credit: Ken Brown)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The preliminaries are over. And now the moment of truth has arrived for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Almost 3.5 years after SpaceShipTwo Enterprise broke up during a flight test on Halloween 2014, the company is scheduled to conduct the first powered flight of SpaceShipTwo Unity later this morning from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The test was preceded by seven glide flights.

I’ll be providing live updates on the flight on Twitter @spacecom.

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SpaceShipTwo Glides, SpaceX Scrubs, Delta IV & 3 Other Launches Pending

SpaceShipTwo Unity on the runway after its seventh glide flight. (Credit; Virgin Galactic)

A busy day in space, so let’s get right to it:

SpaceShipTwo Flies: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity performed its seven glide flight this morning in Mojave. The flight appeared to go as planned based on what I could see from the ground and Virgin Galactic’s tweets; the space plane landed and rolled to a stop on runway 30. The pilots were Mark Stucky and Michael Masucci.

This is the seventh glide flight for Unity and the 37th glide test for the SpaceShipTwo program. Its predecessor, Enterprise, flew 30 glide and three powered flights before it broke up during its fourth powered flight on Oct. 31, 2014.

Virgin Galactic officials have said today’s test should be the final glide flight for Unity. If all went well, the next test will be powered.

UPDATE: Virgin Galactic has posted a description of today’s flight here.

SpaceX Scrubs: SpaceX scrubbed a static fire of the Falcon Heavy booster for the second time in as many days at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The company planned a 12- to 15-second firing of the 27 first stage engines of the heavy-lift rocket. No reason has been given for the scrub. Reports indicate that a third attempt is set for Friday. If the same schedule is maintained, the six-hour test window will open at 1 p.m. EST.

Delta IV Launch Set: United Launch Alliance is planning to launch a Delta IV booster with the NROL 47 reconnaissance satellite from Vandenberg this afternoon. The original launch time was set for 1 p.m. PST, but ULA says it is working a technical issue that will delay the launch until later. No new time as been set yet. The launch was scrubbed on Wednesday due to high winds.

Webcast available at  www.ulalaunch.com and  www.youtube.com/unitedlaunchalliance

UPDATE: Liftoff is now planned for 1:55 p.m. PST. Webcast commentary will start at 1:30 p.m. PST.
UPDATE 2: Liftoff now at 2:05 p.m. PST.

Chinese & Indian Launches Scheduled: A Chinese Long March 3B rocket will launch two Beidou navigation satellites at approximately 2300 GMT (6 p.m. EST) today. The flight will be conducted from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center.

India’s PSLV booster will launch the Cartosat 2F remote sensing satellite from Satish Dhawan Space Center on Friday at 0358 GMT (10:58 p.m. EST on Thursday, Jan. 11). It will be the first PSLV launch since August when a failure of the payload shroud to separate doomed an IRNSS-1H navigation satellite to a fiery destruction.

A Long March 2D rocket is set to launch an unidentified satellite from Jiuquan on Saturday at approximately 0710 GMT (2:10 a.m. EST). This will be China’s third launch of the new year.

Branson’s Autobiography: After SpaceShipTwo’s Loss the Blame Game Began

Nitrous oxide and cabin atmosphere vent from the disintegrating SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: MARS Scientific/NTSB)

Part 3 of 3

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Finding My Virginity: The New Autobiography
Richard Branson
Portfolio
Oct. 10, 2017
482 pages

On the morning of Oct. 31, 2014, a nightmarish vision that had haunted me for months became a real-life disaster in the skies over the Mojave Desert. SpaceShipTwo dropped from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship, lit its engine and appeared to explode. Pieces of the space plane then began to rain down all over the desert.

The motor had exploded. Or the nitrous oxide tank had burst. At least that’s what I and two photographers – whose pictures of the accident would soon be seen around the world – thought had occurred as we watched the flight from Jawbone Station about 20 miles north of Mojave.

We really believed we had seen and heard a blast nine miles overhead, the photos appeared to show one, and it was the most plausible explanation at the time.

We were wrong. More than two days after the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) revealed that co-pilot Mike Alsbury had prematurely unlocked SpaceShipTwo’s feather system during powered ascent. The ship hadn’t blown up, it had broken up as the twin tail booms reconfigured the vehicle with the engine still burning at full thrust.
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Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic Eye Human Spaceflights in 2018

New Shepard booster fires its engine just over the landing pad. (Credit: Blue Origin)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

While Boeing and SpaceX move toward flying astronauts to the International Space Station this year, there are two other companies working on restoring the ability to launch people into space from U.S. soil.

Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic aren’t attempting anything as ambitious as orbital flight. Their aim is to fly short suborbital hops that will give tourists and scientists several minutes of microgravity to float around and conduct experiments in.

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Virgin Galactic Promises New Mexico that 2018 will be the Year

Sunset at the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space” terminal hangar facility at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Galactic Vice President Richard DalBello was in Sante Fe, NM on Wednesday with an optimistic message about the company’s plans to fly tourists to space from the state-owned Spaceport America.

“We think we’re at the beginning of a very exciting period,” he told a legislative committee in Santa Fe. “We know you’ve waited a long time and we are coming.”

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A Niche in Time: First Flight

Richard Branson addresses the crowd before SpaceShipTwo’s glide flight. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Part 5 of 5

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The morning of Dec. 3, 2016, began like so many others in Mojave. The first rays of dawn gave way to a brilliant sunrise that revealed a cloudless, clear blue sky over California’s High Desert.

This was hardly newsworthy. For most of the year, Mojave doesn’t really have weather, just temperatures and wind speeds. It had been literally freezing overnight; the mercury was at a nippy 28º F (-2.2º C) at 4 a.m. As for Mojave’s famous winds – an enemy of roofs, trees and big rigs, but the lifeblood of thousands of wind turbines that cover the landscape west of town – there really weren’t any. It was basically a flat calm.

In other words, it was a perfect day to fly.

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Mojave: The Once and Future Spaceport

Sunset from the Mojave Air and Space Port on Oct. 30, 2014. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

At some point in the next six months, the Mojave Air and Space Port could experience something that not happened here in 13 long years: an actual spaceflight.

Richard Branson is predicting that Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity could reach space on a flight test from Mojave by December. For once, his prediction does not appear to be based on unrealistic hopes, the need to reassure customers about delays, or a complete misunderstanding of what is happening on the ground here.

In other words, it’s actually plausible. Whether it will happen on that schedule…that’s another question. Flight test is notoriously unpredictable and very tough on timetables.

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SpaceShipTwo Flight Test Scheduled for this Morning

SpaceShipTwo glides through the Mojave sky followed by an Extra chase plane. (Credit; Ken Brown)

Word has it that Virgin Galactic has scheduled the fourth glide flight of SpaceShipTwo Unity this morning in Mojave. The test will be the first for Richard Branson’s suborbital space plane in more than two months.

Cell service permitting,  I will be providing coverage of the test at www.twitter.com/spacecom

On the test card for today is deployment of the new spaceship’s redesigned feather system, which re-configures the ship when it returns from space. Unity will be hauled aloft to an altitude of about 50,000 feet by the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft Eve.

The premature deployment of the feather system during powered ascent led to the destruction of the first SpaceShipTwo Enterprise during a flight test on Oct. 31, 2014. Scaled Composites pilot Mike Alsbury died in the accident. Virgin Galactic has added a mechanism to the feather system to prevent premature deployment of the feather.

The weather forecast looks good for the flight, with sunny skies and low surface wind speeds.

There’s a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) for the operation of an unmanned aerial system (UAS) at the spaceport from 6 a.m. to noon. It’s not clear who will be operating the system, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Virgin Galactic is aiming to capture video of the flight from the air.

The six-hour period for UAS operations overlaps with the likely window for a SpaceShipTwo flight test. So, it is unlikely that this is a coincidence.

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