George Whitesides – Parabolic Arc Space Tourism ... and Much More Mon, 27 Mar 2017 17:05:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Obama Signs Law to Prevent Encroachments on Nation’s Spaceports Mon, 05 Dec 2016 11:19:16 +0000 us_spaceports_2016
President Barack Obama has signed into law a measure that will help the nation’s growing legion of spaceports fight the encroachment of obstacles such as transmission lines that could endanger suborbital spacecraft.

The measure, sponsored by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), was inspired by a problem experienced by the Mojave Air and Space Port, which is in the Congressman’s district. A utility company built extra tall transmission towers near the airport, sparking safety concerns among officials there.

Virgin Galactic is currently conducting flights tests of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle in Mojave. The spacecraft glides to a landing on the runway there.

“Most spaceports are located at existing airports, such as Mojave Air and Space Port, which is classified as a ‘General Aviation’ airport,” according to a press release from McCarthy’s office. “Because of this, the FAA is limited to the metrics prescribed for studying potential structural obstructions to general aviation airports and aircraft, and is unable to take into account the unique trajectories of suborbital vehicles.

“H.R. 6007 would give the Secretary of Transportation the authority to conduct aeronautical studies at spaceports, allowing the FAA to study the potential impact of structures on spacecraft arriving or departing from a licensed launch site,” the press release added. “Additionally, the bill requires rulemaking to implement this requirement within 18 months of enactment.”

Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Mojave Air and Space Port)
Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Mojave Air and Space Port)

“Mojave Air and Space Port is pleased to see another positive step forward in protecting the operational investment by so many, government and private sector alike,”  said spaceport Karina Drees.

“Once again, Majority Leader McCarthy has shown that he is committed to helping keep Mojave at the forefront of commercial spaceflight. This bill will help ensure that spaceports like ours are able to operate without fear of encroachment,” added George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company.


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Photos Gallery: SpaceShipTwo Unity’s First Glide Flight Sat, 03 Dec 2016 20:46:58 +0000 Richard Branson addresses the crowd before SpaceShipTwo's glide flight. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)
Richard Branson addresses the crowd before SpaceShipTwo’s glide flight. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)
SpaceShipTwo glides over the Mojave Desert after being released from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship. (Credit; Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo glides over the Mojave Desert after being released from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship. (Credit; Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo glides to a landing at Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo glides to a landing at Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo glides through the Mojave sky followed by an Extra chase plane. (Credit; Ken Brown)
SpaceShipTwo glides through the Mojave sky followed by an Extra chase plane. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)
SpaceShipTwo comes in for a landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)
SpaceShipTwo comes in for a landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)
SpaceShipTwo rolls to a stop on the runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)
SpaceShipTwo rolls to a stop on the runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)
Richard Branson and George Whitesides gaze out at SpaceShipTwo after it came to a stop on Runway 12. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Richard Branson and George Whitesides gave out at SpaceShipTwo after it came to a stop on Runway 12. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Richard Branson moves to embrace SpaceShipTwo pilots David Mackay and Mark Stucky. To Branson's right in Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)
Richard Branson moves to embrace SpaceShipTwo pilots David Mackay and Mark Stucky. To Branson’s right is Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)
Richard Branson (l) and George Whitesides (r) walk with SpaceShipTwo pilots David Mackay and Mark Stucky after a successful glide flight. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)
Richard Branson (l) and George Whitesides (r) walk with SpaceShipTwo pilots David Mackay and Mark Stucky after a successful glide flight. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)
SpaceShipTwo being towed back to Virgin Galactic's FAITH hangar after a successful glide flight. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
SpaceShipTwo being towed back to Virgin Galactic’s FAITH hangar after a successful glide flight. (Credit: Douglas Messier)








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Video: Richard Branson Addresses Crowd Before SpaceShipTwo Glide Flight Sat, 03 Dec 2016 17:53:55 +0000

Sir Richard Branson ventured out to Mojave Air & Space Port in California for the first glide flight of Virgin Gaalctic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity on Saturday, Dec. 3.

He addressed a crowd of a couple of hundred Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company employees who had gathered near the base of the Mojave control tower to witness the test.

It was the first flight of a SpaceShipTwo vehicle since the first spacecraft Enterprise was destroyed during a powered flight test on Halloween 2014. Unity will undergo a series of glide flights in the months ahead before powered flights begin sometime in 2017.

Keep up with Virgin Galactic and all the latest space news at and

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Movement on Firefly-Virgin Galactic Legal Dispute? Thu, 17 Nov 2016 06:49:24 +0000

Dear @gtwhitesides & Claude. I have apparently been silent for too long. Let’s talk! Cc @richardbranson

— Michael A. Blum (@mablum) November 17, 2016

This is an interesting Tweet from Firefly Space Systems’ co-founder Michael A. Blum on Wednesday to Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides with a cc: to Whitesides’ boss, Richard Branson. Claude appears to be Claude M. Stern, one of Virgin Galactic’s lawyers.

The two companies have been involved in a legal dispute for two years. Virgin Galactic took their former vice president of propulsion, Tom Markusic, to arbitration, charging he took confidential material with him when he left Virgin to found Firefly at the end of 2013.

The arbitration has spilled out into the courts, with the parties filing legal actions against each other. Last month, Virgin Galactic filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against Firefly, Blum and co-founder P.J. King, alleging misappropriation of trade secrets and unfair competition.

The lawsuit alleges that Firefly, Blum and King benefited from knowledge that Markusic took with him from Virgin Galactic. Markusic and the defendants have denied the claims.

Firefly furloughed all of its employees at the end of September, saying the company had run out of money after an investor pulled out.

Earlier this week, Firefly announced it had received letters of intent (LOI) for 42 launches from prospective customers through the end of 2021, which the company valued at more than $300M. The company said an additional 35 launches valued at more than $280 million had been “requested” through 2025.

Firefly has been developing a small satellite launcher, Firefly Alpha, that would compete for business with the LauncherOne booster that Virgin Galactic has under development.

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Virgin Galactic Promotes Mike Moses to President Thu, 13 Oct 2016 16:57:04 +0000 Michael Moses
Michael Moses

LAS CRUCES, NM, October 13, 2016 (Virgin Galactic PR) – Virgin Galactic, the privately funded space company owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments PJS, is pleased to announce the promotion of Michael P. Moses to President. Moses, who joined Virgin Galactic in 2011 as Vice President of Operations, will now oversee Virgin Galactic’s human spaceflight program, reporting directly to Virgin Galactic CEO George T. Whitesides.

Mike joined Virgin Galactic after a decorated career at NASA, where he served as a flight controller, Flight Director, and ultimately as the Space Shuttle Launch Integration Manager. In that role, he led all space shuttle operations from landing through launch for the final dozen flights of NASA’s space shuttle program. For his services, Mike was twice recognized with the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal, one of the space agency’s most prestigious medals. Mike has also received both the Distinguished Science Alumni and the Outstanding Aerospace Engineer awards from Purdue University, among many other commendations.

Speaking today at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces, Moses said, “I’m incredibly honored to be leading the fantastic women and men of our company, who continue to push so diligently to open the space frontier. I’ve been very fortunate in my career to play a part in safely sending many NASA astronauts to space. At Virgin Galactic, with our great vehicles and our fantastic team, I know we’ll get the chance to send not just tens but hundreds and thousands of people into space.”

Virgin Galactic’s vehicles include the reusable SpaceShipTwo (VSS Unity) and its air launch carrier vehicle WhiteKnightTwo (VMS Eve), with construction of additional SpaceShipTwo vehicles underway at Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing arm, The Spaceship Company.

Virgin Galactic CEO George T. Whitesides added. “Not only is Mike a well-respected member of the space community, but his leadership within our own company has been critical to our success in building a world-class organization and team. I am excited about the work ahead and look forward to helping make it possible for many more humans to reach space and experience our home planet from above.”

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Virgin Galactic Announces Sky and Space Global as Newest LauncherOne Customer Mon, 12 Sep 2016 18:17:56 +0000 LauncherOne ignites after being released from Cosmic Girl 747. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
LauncherOne ignites after being released from Cosmic Girl 747. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

PARIS, September 12, 2016 (Virgin Galactic PR) – Commercial spaceline Virgin Galactic announced today that global communications company Sky and Space Global (ASX:SAS) has signed a binding launch services agreement to purchase four dedicated missions on the LauncherOne system. Speaking at the World Satellite Business Week event in Paris, officials from the two companies revealed that these flights will enable the deployment of Sky and Space Global’s initial constellation. Financial terms of the contract were not disclosed.

Virgin Galactic also announced the capability to fly LauncherOne from low latitudes, allowing customers to maximize the amount of payload delivered to low inclination orbit, including equatorial orbits. Typically, ground-based launch vehicles must expend significant amounts of performance to deliver spacecraft to inclinations well away from the latitude of the launch site. By contrast, as an air-launched system, LauncherOne can optimize each mission to customer requirements by operating from a variety of launch locations—including launching the rocket from above or near the equator in order to most efficiently and cost-effectively insert satellites into low inclination orbits.

Sky and Space Global’s flights are the first announced LauncherOne missions planned to fly from low latitudes, allowing Sky and Space Global to maximize the amount of payload delivered to a low inclination orbit. Previously disclosed LauncherOne contracts, including flights for OneWeb and NASA, are designed to fly to higher inclination orbits.

Each of the four launches purchased by Sky and Space Global will be used to carry multiple satellites, which will rapidly establish the company’s innovative communication system infrastructure and service. The flights are expected to begin in 2018.

Speaking at the Paris event, Virgin Galactic CEO George T. Whitesides said: “Having a 747 as our flying launch site means that LauncherOne can tailor each mission to suit each customer. We’ve seen an enormous level of commercial and governmental interest in launches that can reach equatorial orbits without having to pay the large performance penalty associated with transfer orbits. We’re very excited to have this agreement in place now with a great company like Sky and Space Global to deliver their satellites to orbit reliably, affordably, and flexibly.”

Sky and Space Global CEO Meir Moalem added: “We are thrilled to partner with Virgin Galactic on our exciting missions and LauncherOne’s first low inclination launches. Just as we value purposeful innovation and customer service, Virgin Galactic shares our values and our vision for how communication can fundamentally improve lives. We have an ideal partner in Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne and its operational flexibility and are excited to work together to change the world for good.”

The fully-funded LauncherOne program is currently in advanced phase of hardware testing for every subsystem and major component of the vehicle. With hundreds of millions of dollars of launches already under contract, Virgin Galactic has established a state-of-the-art 150,000 square foot manufacturing shop in Long Beach, California, with a team of more than 200 experienced aerospace professionals currently preparing the system for its first test flights.

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Virgin Galactic Taps Tim Buzza to Lead LauncherOne Program Tue, 28 Jun 2016 22:47:46 +0000 George Whitesides
George Whitesides

With Virgin Galactic President Steve Isakowitz heading out the door for the Aerospace Corporation, CEO George Whitesides has made an interim appointment in the meantime.

“I have asked Tim Buzza, the program director of LauncherOne, to step up and lead our LauncherOne enterprise as we search for Steve’s successor. Tim joined Virgin Galactic in 2014, and has led the overall program management of LauncherOne since early 2015. Prior to joining Galactic, Tim served as the Vice President of Launch and Test at SpaceX, in addition to prior leadership roles at Boeing and McDonnell Douglas. Tim will be supported by our Senior Vice President of Business Development and Advanced Concepts, Barry Matsumori, who was previously SpaceX’s Senior Vice President of Sales and Business Development, as well as key roles at Qualcomm, Space Systems Loral and General Dynamics.”

Whitesides’ full statement is below.

“We are deeply proud of Steve and wish him the best as he embarks on this important new mission leading The Aerospace Corporation. I am sure he will serve our nation well, as he has many times in the past, contributing his crucial perspectives to the dynamic environment of national security and civil space.”

“During Steve’s time with our company, VG’s orbital LauncherOne business has built a firm launch backlog of more than $250 million and over 50 satellites, plus options and letters of intent to launch an additional 300+ satellites. The revolutionary LauncherOne rocket business now has over 200 world-class employees, 150,000 square feet of fully-outfitted manufacturing facilities, four propulsion and structural test facilities in Mojave, and a dedicated 747-400 jumbo jet launch platform. I’d also like to thank Steve for his accomplishments working with the team to develop our successful in-house capability for advanced propulsion, and helping to create an ambitious roadmap for future opportunities in both human spaceflight and satellite launch.”

“I have asked Tim Buzza, the program director of LauncherOne, to step up and lead our LauncherOne enterprise as we search for Steve’s successor. Tim joined Virgin Galactic in 2014, and has led the overall program management of LauncherOne since early 2015. Prior to joining Galactic, Tim served as the Vice President of Launch and Test at SpaceX, in addition to prior leadership roles at Boeing and McDonnell Douglas. Tim will be supported by our Senior Vice President of Business Development and Advanced Concepts, Barry Matsumori, who was previously SpaceX’s Senior Vice President of Sales and Business Development, as well as key roles at Qualcomm, Space Systems Loral and General Dynamics.”

“I look forward to working with Tim and Barry as the LauncherOne team achieves its mission to provide responsive, affordable and dedicated launch services to the commercial and government small satellite markets.”

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Whitesides, Masten Engineer Selected for Space Camp Hall of Fame Thu, 09 Jun 2016 15:38:51 +0000 George Whitesides
George Whitesides

HUNTSVILLE, Ala., (U.S. Space & Rocket Center PR) — The U.S. Space & Rocket Center® is pleased to announce the selection of three outstanding individuals who make up the 2016 class of the Space Camp® Hall of Fame: Jason Hopkins, an aerospace engineer and business development specialist at Masten Space Systems and a former NASA Fellow; Dr. Amy Kaminski, Senior Policy Advisor, Office of the Chief Scientist, NASA; and George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company.

In honor of the 30th anniversary of its release, the Rocket Center is also inducting the cast of “Space Camp,” a movie that launched the dream of attending Space Camp for thousands of children. Larry B. Scott, who played Rudy Tyler in the movie, will accept the induction of the cast into the Space Camp Hall of Fame.

Each of these individuals have built successful careers from a dream they had while they were at Space Camp,” Dr. Deborah Barnhart, CEO and Executive Director of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, said. “The professional accomplishments of this year’s inductees and their passion for inspiring the spirit of curiosity and exploration in others are standout examples of what our more than 700,000 alumni are capable. By recognizing and sharing the stories of these three people, we are encouraging Space Camp trainees past and future to follow in their footsteps and make their dreams a reality.”

The Space Camp Hall of Fame includes graduates and former employees who have distinguished themselves in their respective careers and friends of the Center who have made considerable contributions of personal time, effort or resources to further the goals of the Space Camp programs. Members exhibit leadership among the globe-spanning Space Camp alumni community of almost 700,000, providing guidance and encouragement for alumni to continue to support the Space Camp mission.

This year’s inductees join the ranks of 35 Hall of Fame members, including Dr. Wernher von Braun and astronauts Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, Samantha Cristoforetti and Dr. Kate Rubins, who is scheduled to launch to the International Space Station in June.

The 2016 class will be inducted at the Hall of Fame Ceremony and Dinner, to be held July 16, 2016, at the Rocket Center’s Davidson Center for Space Exploration. Miles O’Brien, a longtime space journalist and the science correspondent for the PBS NewsHour, is the guest speaker for the evening.

The induction ceremony is part of a three-day Space Camp Summer Fest, a family-friendly event that offers participants the chance to relive the Space Camp and Aviation Challenge® experiences. The weekend concludes with a “Totally 80s Concert is Shuttle Park” in honor of the 30th anniversary of the movie “Space Camp.” Headliners are Eddie Money, Mickey Thomas from Starship and special guests Bill Champlin, formerly of Chicago; Robbie Dupree; Jeff Carlisi, formerly of .38 Special; and Yacht Rock Revue.

For more information on the Space Camp Summer Fest, visit

About U.S. Space & Rocket Center

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center, a Smithsonian Affiliate, is home to Space Camp® and Aviation Challenge®, the Apollo 16 capsule, the National Historic Landmark Saturn V rocket and world-class traveling exhibits. USSRC is the Official Visitor Center for NASA Marshall Space Flight Center and a showcase for national defense technologies developed at the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal.

To learn more about the exciting programs and activities at the USSRC, go to

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WhiteKnightTwo Flies at Spaceport America Sun, 24 Apr 2016 22:04:19 +0000

Terrific week of exercises at our future home, working w/ @Spaceport_NM, local ATC, WSMR, & FAA’s Albuquerque Center

— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) April 21, 2016

SPACEPORT AMERICA, NM (NMSA PR) — Virgin Galactic and Spaceport America Operations teams welcomed WhiteKnightTwo back to the clear blue skies of New Mexico on Monday.

Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo was put through the paces this week as the pilots, ground and mission control crewmembers performed numerous ground and air exercises in preparation for future commercial space flights.

Yesterday, Virgin Galactic simulated all elements of a mission including rollout of the vehicle, flight preparation, take off and release from high altitude. After the simulated release, WhiteKnightTwo flew a simulated spaceship return profile and then performed several practice touch and goes before landing.

“Preparing the commercial operations crew and WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve at Spaceport America is an important milestone on the road to commercial human spaceflight service. It was helpful to work alongside local air traffic controllers in New Mexico and to conduct exercises in New Mexico airspace. We look forward to returning to our future home at Spaceport America.” – George Whitesides, CEO, Virgin Galactic

“This is a very important step along the journey to the first flight of the Virgin Galactic commercial spaceline, You cannot over train or over exercise. Nothing is taken for granted.” – Christine Anderson, CEO, Spaceport America

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Orbital Wants to Use Old Missiles to Launch Commercial Satellites Wed, 06 Apr 2016 00:15:02 +0000 A Minotaur V rocket carrying NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) lifts off from at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. (Credit: NASA/Chris Perry)
A Minotaur V rocket carrying NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) lifts off from at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. (Credit: NASA/Chris Perry)

Orbital ATK would like to expand its use of old ballistic missile engines for commercial launches.

Orbital Vice President Barron Beneski said in an interview on Friday that the company was pushing Washington to get the ban lifted as part of the National Defense Authorization Act that sets defense policy for fiscal 2017, which begins Oct. 1.

The missiles were idled by nuclear disarmament treaties between the United States and Russia in the 1990s….

Orbital said it wants the missiles to build a Minotaur 4 launch vehicle capable of lifting about four times the weight of small rockets like LauncherOne, which is being developed by Richard Branson’s California-based Virgin Galactic.

“It’s not a matter of us taking business away from them. It’s a matter of us filling a void in the Minotaur 4 market and competing it internationally,” Orbital’s vice president of business development Mark Pieczynski said.

Orbital ATK incorporates leftover Minuteman and Peacekeeper motors in its Minotaur line of launch vehicles, which are used primarily for government payloads. However, their use for commercial launches has been banned for the past 20 years.

Companies that are developing small satellite launch vehicles say lifting the ban would hurt them. Writing in SpaceNews Magazine last month, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides wrote:

Thousands of jobs depend on maintaining a sensible policy that encourages private investment and discourages government competition. Congress has also been mindful of the potential negative impact that the conversion and use of excess ballistic missiles would have on the growth of the U.S. commercial space industry. The House Science Committee, addressing this issue contemporaneously with the original White House policy, noted that the “Wholesale conversions of ICBMs into space transportation vehicles risks placing the government in the position of competing with the private sector and could have long-term consequences.” What was true then is even more true now.

Read Whiteside’s full op-ed piece.

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L-3 Modifying Virgin Galactic’s Cosmic Girl 747 to Launch Satellites Fri, 18 Mar 2016 21:34:34 +0000 Virgin Galactic Cosmic Girl 747. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Virgin Galactic Cosmic Girl 747. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

WACO, Texas, March 16, 2016 (L-3 PR) – L-3 and Virgin Galactic announced today that Virgin Galactic’s 747-400 aircraft, which serves as an airborne launch pad for its LauncherOne small satellite launch service, has arrived at L-3’s Platform Integration facilities and is entering into the next phase of its modification process.

L-3 was competitively selected for the modification work on the dedicated mothership for the LauncherOne program. In conjunction with Virgin Galactic, L-3 has been performing engineering work on the modification project since 2015.

The aircraft, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, completed a heavy maintenance check prior to its arrival at L-3’s facilities. Once L-3’s modifications are complete, Cosmic Girl will be able to carry the LauncherOne rocket under its left wing, partially leveraging the position frequently used by 747s to ferry additional jet engines. L-3’s modifications will mainly involve strengthening the wing to carry the LauncherOne rocket.

Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson announced in December 2015 that the aircraft had been added to Virgin Galactic’s fleet of air and space vehicles. The company selected the 747-400 due to its robust carrying capacity, operational flexibility, long range, ability to operate in many kinds of weather, global pool of talented maintenance support personnel, robust spare parts supply chain, and its lengthy and impressive track record of reliable operations. As part of that history, 747s have supported a variety of air-launch and ferrying missions, such as the Space Shuttle Enterprise test flight program, NASA’s Shuttle Carrier Aircraft program, the Pratt & Whitney flying test bed, and ferry flight of the X-45 Phantom Ray.

Virgin Galactic CEO George T. Whitesides said, “Air launch allows us to offer rapid, responsive service that meets the schedules and business needs of our customers. Leveraging the extensive technical expertise at L-3 for 747 modifications will enable rapid delivery of the aircraft to our launch operations team at Virgin Galactic.”

L-3 Platform Integration is no stranger to the space industry, with experience on several important projects, including integration of the massive SOFIA airborne observatory. L-3 also has deep familiarity with the 747 airframe, having conducted modifications for major engine OEMs, NASA and private customers.

“It is exciting to have the opportunity to apply L-3’s engineering expertise and versatility in systems integration to Virgin Galactic’s pioneering work in creating the world’s first spaceline,” said Jim Gibson, sector president of L-3 Aircraft Systems, which includes Platform Integration. “From our flight sciences and aerospace engineers to our aircraft technicians, L-3’s team looks forward to collaborating with Virgin Galactic in helping them achieve their goals on this unique program.”


Virgin Galactic is the world’s first commercial spaceline. Founded by Sir Richard Branson and owned by the Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS, Virgin Galactic aims to open access to space to change the world for good. Virgin Galactic is developing reliable, affordable, and frequent services both for human spaceflight and satellite launch. To launch the small satellite revolution, Virgin Galactic is developing LauncherOne, a flexible launch service for commercial and government-built satellites. LauncherOne rockets are designed and manufactured in Long Beach, California, and will be air launched from a dedicated 747-400 carrier from various locations. To revolutionize human spaceflight, Virgin Galactic is testing the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, a reusable space launch system. To date, 700 men and women from more than 50 nations — greater than the total number of humans who have ever been to space — have reserved places to fly to space with Virgin Galactic. SpaceShipTwo and its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, are manufactured and tested in Mojave, California by Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing wing, The Spaceship Company. Commercial operations will be based in New Mexico at Spaceport America, the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport.


L-3 Platform Integration has more than 30 years of experience as an aircraft systems integrator for programs including maritime surveillance, advanced communications, avionics modernization and special-mission aircraft for military, commercial and OEM customers.

Headquartered in New York City, L-3 (parent company of L-3 Platform Integration) employs approximately 38,000 people worldwide and is a leading provider of a broad range of communication and electronic systems and products used on military and commercial platforms. L-3 is also a prime contractor in aerospace systems. The company reported 2015 sales of $10.5 billion. To learn more about L-3, please visit the company’s website at

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Virgin Galactic Says Bookings on SpaceShipTwo Have Recovered Wed, 16 Mar 2016 18:14:16 +0000 George Whitesides
George Whitesides

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides was in Abu Dhabi this week for a space conference, where he gave an update on the company’s progress since the October 2014 that destroyed the first SpaceShipTwo and killed pilot Mike Alsbury.

About 25 of 700 fee-paying clients withdrew from the program after the crash in the Mojave Desert in California caused it to be put on hold just months before the first commercial flight, Virgin Galactic Chief Executive Officer George Whitesides said Tuesday in Abu Dhabi.

“We had a little dip right after the accident, but honestly we’re almost all the way back now,” Whitesides said at a conference organized by the International Civil Aviation Organization and United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. “It’s looking very good. There’s a global desire to experience space.”

Virgin Galactic said it had “more than 700 Future Astronauts” signed up as of April 2014. In media appearances in the months before the accident, Branson put the number of tickets sold at or close to 800.

Whitesides also said that Virgin Galactic’s partner, Aabar Investments, might increase its stake in the company.

When asked whether Aabar is planning to increase or decrease their stake in the company, he said they had meetings with their representatives and said the responses had been positive.

In 2009, Aabar paid $280 million for a 31.8 percent stake in Virgin Galactic. The government-owned sovereign wealth fund upped its stake to 37.8 percent with an additional investment of $110 million in 2011.

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Character, Candor & Competence: Lessons From the SpaceShipTwo Crash Mon, 25 Jan 2016 08:03:03 +0000 SpaceShipTwo right boom wreckage. (Credit: NTSB)
SpaceShipTwo right boom wreckage. (Credit: NTSB)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

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.

“Op-Ed Letter of Gratitude to the Aerospace Valley,” by Mojave Air and Space Port CEO/General Manager Stuart O. Witt is an interesting case in point. The letter, which Witt wrote in November 2014, was a response to the loss of SpaceShipTwo and Mike Alsbury on Oct. 31 and the deaths of National Test Pilot School instructor Mike Hill and student pilot Ilam Zigante in a place crash one week earlier.

The twin tragedies hit the Mojave community hard. Witt’s goals were honorable enough: to buck up everyone, to give credit where credit was due, and show the community that the emergency had been handled competently and professionally. This is what we would expect from a strong leader who has built up Mojave into the world’s premiere test site for civilian space.

Mojave Air and Space Port CEO Stu Witt (Credit: Bill Deaver)
Mojave Air and Space Port CEO Stu Witt (Credit: Bill Deaver)

Yet, his portrayal of Mojave’s heroic response to the SpaceShipTwo accident is significantly at odds in places with the reality that emerged in the NTSB investigation. The response to the accident was slow and fragmented, and the actions of some of the people involved following the accident fell well short of the high character which Witt attributes to these individuals.

Witt wrote the letter at a time when he and other officials were restricted from talking about details of the accident. So, he couldn’t have talked about the shortcomings in the response even if he had wanted to. By the same token, the government-imposed period of silence made it difficult to really fact-check what Witt did say about the incident. The full story didn’t emerge until the release NTSB documents in late July.

Witt’s essay is reproduced below. I have interspersed commentary based upon NTSB documents and Parabolic Arc’s own reporting.

Op-Ed Letter of Gratitude to the Aerospace Valley
CEO Stuart Witt

Stu Witt (Credit: MASP)
Stu Witt (Credit: MASP)

Character is seldom created during the good times. Character in my glossary of terms defines the people with whom you choose to work, play and socialize. Over the past four weeks my 62 year definition of Character has not changed. Most don’t seem to realize the human sacrifice involved with each phase of furthering human movement around the Earth. From 10,000 years ago to 150 years ago humans traveled at the speed of their feet. Today we travel at .82 Mach in pressurized air conditioned comfort. Statistically, all reach their destination safely. All of this advancement occurred in the past 115 years! Not a bad contribution from the dreamers/funders/developers/testers/operators. But, from time to time we (our little club) pay a costly fee for our contribution to humanity’s safe movement around the globe.

For us the morning of October 24 started out like most others. It included a brief scan of the daily flight test schedule, a brief on the special testing of rocket engines on the north side, and official visitors. Running a test airport/spaceport has a natural way of keeping you on edge at all times, even though most may never see that dimension in your eyes. Just ask Kevin our Operations Director or Harold our Maintenance/Fuels Director or me. What we did not know at 0926 on 24 Oct was that our Character would be exposed to the world over the next four weeks, beginning in one minute.

My first clue, “Stu, Tiger 3 is overdue and Tower just said an ELT (emergency locator transmitter) can be heard on 121.5 mhz. from somewhere near Koehn Dry Lake”… This info taken separately is common, taken together is not good and triggers action by many. My response to Kevin, “take Chris, take a case of water and start driving north on 14. I will go to “the School” (NTPS) and obtain what I can and relay. (Latitude Longitude, etc., frequency for Search and Rescue SAR) Call 911 and make a preparatory call for assistance from KCSO and KCFD, request the FD helicopter from Keene. I will be right behind you.” It did not take long to ascertain that Tiger 3 was not responsive by radio or cell phone. We are very familiar with the operating area and info was arriving fast. I relayed best Lat/Long info received and headed north where I intercepted Kevin and Chris and two KCSO units on Randsburg Road west of Garlock. As the day unfolded we soon realized the valley had lost an incredibly talented test pilot and German flight engineer on a training/instructional flight east of Koehn Lake. This led to a long introspective weekend for many and the questions began flying, “Why, How, etc.”… Answers all unknown, even as I write. But we could not get past the depth of our loss. It hurt and affected the entire valley and RDT&E Flight Community.

A plaque honoring Mike Hill and Ilam Zigante. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
A plaque honoring Mike Hill and Ilam Zigante. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

By the end of the first memorial on 29 Oct we were still in a daze but beginning to function as a unit once again. The airport was in high gear and the school was easing back in the air. We had conducted our mandatory emergency responders briefing in preparation for Friday’s planned SS2 powered flight. By Thursday evening as ground crews were preparing for fueling, our focus has shifted. Things were moving forward. Outcomes from the previous week, our execution of our internally and externally SAR efforts regarding the Tiger 3 mishap were professional and by the book. You could say, we were tuned up for all the wrong reasons, ready for the last mishap…as always the case.

WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo aloft on Oct. 31, 2014. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo aloft on Oct. 31, 2014. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

We were now ready to return to the airport NLT 0400 on 31 Oct to begin operations for a 0800 takeoff and planned 0915 release of SS2. We all arrived on schedule and once again I received my morning status briefing…”a delay of perhaps 1-2 hours for rather normal reasons, slightly cooler than expected temps”. Our daily emergency responders briefing included three new faces from the KCSO’s office and one from the KCFD. We went through each detail as if it were everyone’s first time. Each one of these sessions ends with an overview of current events and items to keep in your head as we enter game time. This IS THE REAL DEAL…EVERYTIME.

Editor’s Note: The REAL DEAL it certainly was. And that’s exactly what makes the pre-flight safety preparations so mystifying.

SpaceShipTwo’s fourth powered flight would be the riskiest to date. They were using a brand new type of hybrid engine that had never been fired in flight before. They were going to burn the new engine for nearly double the amount of time as any previous engine. The burn would propel the spacecraft to nearly twice the altitude, followed by SpaceShipTwo’s first supersonic feathered descent.

In short, it was a high-risk flight that involved a significant expansion of SpaceShipTwo’s flight test envelope. Any number of things could go wrong that could produce what people in the industry euphemistically call “a bad day”.

So, how did the airport, Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic, and county law enforcement and emergency officials respond to the most dangerous flight in the program yet? They lengthened the time it would take to respond to an accident off the airport.

For SpaceShipTwo’s three previous powered flights, a Kern County Fire Department emergency helicopter was pre-positioned at the Mojave spaceport from its base in Keene. This move had several advantages. Mojave was located about 20 miles south of the main drop zone. It is a straight shot north over relatively flat desert terrain. A rescue chopper could be in the area in 10 to 15 minutes flying time depending upon exactly where it needed to go.

Keene is located about 37 miles northwest of Mojave on the other side of a large mountain range. The town is subject to morning fog that can hinder the operation of the helicopters based there. A rescue helicopter might have trouble taking off at the very moment it would be needed to respond to one of SpaceShipTwo’s early morning flight tests.

Despite all this, county officials suggested at a safety briefing three days before the accident that the helicopter be kept in Keene in order to respond to any nearby emergencies. Surprisingly, no one from Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic or the airport objected to the plan.

This was rather astonishing given the high-risk nature of the flight and the fact that Mojave had just lost two people days earlier on a routine training flight. One might expect everyone to be extra vigilant about safety, to go the extra mile to make sure they could immediately respond to downed pilots or members of the uninvolved public who might be injured by falling debris.

Interestingly, there was a rescue helicopter already based in Mojave: Mercy Air 14, a fully equipped air ambulance with advanced life support equipment that operated under contract with the county. But, following standard procedure, nobody from Mercy Air was included in any pre-flight safety briefings. Nor did anyone tell them to be on standby.

Yes, SpaceShipTwo powered flight no. 4 was the REAL DEAL. But, rescuers were less prepared to rapidly respond if something went wrong than they had been on the previous three powered tests.

Siebold descends under parachute near Koehn Dry Lake. (Credit: Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic/NTSA)
Siebold descends under parachute near Koehn Dry Lake. (Credit: Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic/NTSA)

WITT: As the usual airport employee crowd gathered at the base of the tower we noticed a somewhat larger group than normal. Nice day, big crowd, “We see the contrails of WhiteKnightTwo 50+ miles east headed our way” was the whisper in the crowd. As onlookers listened to Carl in the Tower clear “SCAT” for landing the crowd became characteristically silent….absolutely silent. Three two one, release, release, release… item away, good light, nominal… Then nothing…..Character time had begun for the second week in a row. Second Friday in a row…nearly the same time, same location over the north test ranges. Then the radio calls which say so much to the listening grey beards. “One Chute”, and the pre-briefed emergency responder Cavalry departed to the north on cue.

Al Peterson (Credit: MASP)
Al Peterson (Credit: MASP)

So, who displayed Character?

Dr. Al Peterson (former USA veteran and test pilot). Volunteer UH-1N pilot of Tiger 1 who one week earlier had lost his best friend and test pilot, along with Nicola Pecile (Italian AF Test Pilot), Ed Solskey (Former Canadian AF Test Pilot) & EMT Patrick Campbell, first to make contact with SS2 Survivor, and Dr. Chuck Antonio MD.(former USN pilot and MD) Russ Stewart (former USAF Test Pilot), C.J. Sturckow (former USMC and NASA Astronaut), Nigel Speedy (South African Test Pilot) on different days who just happened to be airborne and answered the call to provide airborne on-scene command or first on scene.

Editor’s Note: So, here’s how the rescue of Scaled Composites pilot Pete Siebold went down. By the time the first rescue reached him, he had been lying in the scrub brush west of Koehn Lake for 34 minutes. It had been 45 minutes since the first report had reached Mojave that SpaceShipTwo had broken up.

The first helicopter on the scene, flown by Peterson, was from the National Test Pilot School. At Witt’s request, Peterson and others had pulled it out of the hangar and conducted a pre-flight of the chopper before getting into the air. Once the helicopter was airborne, it took 11 minutes to reach Siebold’s location, which had been pinpointed by the chase plane.

The county helicopter from Keene landed about five minutes later. It took longer to reach the location because it was further away and was slow getting off the ground after it was told to launch.

Mercy Air was out of service and conducting a routine maintenance flight over the Mojave airport at the time SpaceShipTwo broke up. Even after the crew landed and put the helicopter back into service, the county held back on dispatching it to the scene.

So, they’ve got a seriously injured pilot lying in the sagebrush for more than half an hour after surviving a fall from 50,000 feet without a pressure suit, and the best these guys could do after preparing for the REAL DEAL was by using a helicopter they had to pull out of the hangar and cold start because nothing else was available in Mojave for what was arguably the most dangerous flight of the SpaceShipTwo program.

WITT: These professionals each provided precise descriptive commentary to guide follow-up responders along with Air Traffic Controllers from Mojave, Edwards and FAA, just doing their jobs. Just average folks who a few days earlier were mourning the loss of a squadron mate and a week later saving another. (foreign and domestic, competitors, collaborators, pilots, controllers) Mercy Air Medical Responders who quietly carries out their craft daily, but on these two days in October 2014 were supporting the same people whom they meet for lunch at the Voyager. Character on call and in full view.

The spot part of SpaceShipTwo's cockpit crashed. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
The spot part of SpaceShipTwo’s cockpit crashed. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Kevin (former USN rescue swimmer) and Chris from our Operations and Security divisions, first on scene two weeks in a row. Kevin and Chris have my deepest respect for running to the sound of gunfire. Character. Then there is our office staff, who to a person just knows what to do because they have participated in training so many times under the leadership of former employee Bob Rice and our Fire Chief Rich Fauble and Deputy Joe Hughes who guide us in emergency preparedness. Through them we know exactly what to do and where to go FIRST. All true professionals, like Tenina, Lynn, Carmelita and Carrie who run our front office and accounting office by day, instantly shift gears and manage public information, set up spaces for press conferences, established and captured exacting time lines with Mike and Sara in security, lock down video, weather info, and prepare me for mandatory reporting to FAA/NTSB/AST and congressional members. Cam Martin and John Kelly from NASA Armstrong who quietly settled in and began collecting data for my press notes and organizing assistance from NASA and USAF grief counselors. Deborah Roth, my assistant who quietly knows “how to think for me”, especially during crisis. Character on display.

All responders from Chief Brian Marshall’s KCFD: Deputy Chief Mike Cody, Battalion Chief Jim Eckroth, Steve Pendergrass and Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood who personally committed hundreds of personnel including Mojave Substation leadership Lt Little and SGT Williams, Cal City Fire and PD, Ridgecrest PD, who took on scene command and established 7/24 control providing GIS Mapping of the entire debris field for NTSP. Hundreds of volunteer KCSO Search and Rescue personnel. Character at every level.

Editor’s Note: Nobody would question the character and bravery of first responders. They risk their own lives to save the lives of others. Their job is to respond to awful incidents where people are injured, dead or dying. The scene where Alsbury’s body crashed down was particularly grisly. I saw it. Anyone with the fortitude to deal with those situations on a regular basis deserves our respect and admiration.

The problem is this case is that when it mattered most, the pre-flight planning was deficient and the response inexplicably slow. Pat Williams, the pilot who flew the rescue helicopter from Keene, admitted to NTSB investigators that the emergency response was “fragmented” and that “it wasn’t good dispatch.” He later put together a timeline “to produce a training point on how not to dispatch an incident.”

Federal investigators agreed. “The NTSB is concerned that Scaled conducted a high-risk flight test without the on-airport presence of a helicopter that was specifically prepared for and tasked with supporting an emergency response….The NTSB concludes that Scaled Composites and local emergency response officials could improve their emergency readiness for future test flights by making better use of available helicopter assets,” the final accident report reads.

The response could have been a lot more complicated that it was that day. Siebold’s injuries were not life threatening; if they had been, the delay in responding could have been fatal.

If co-pilot Mike Alsbury had survived the breakup and parachuted to safety, responders might have been dealing with two seriously injured pilots in different parts of the desert. As it was, Alsbury and part of the cockpit missed hitting two truck drivers on Cantil Road who had passed the spot where they came down seconds earlier.

This was a scary incident because the primary goal of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in overseeing this industry is to protect the uninvolved public. There’s a widespread belief that it was safe to launch over lightly populated areas because nobody on the ground would be hit if anything went wrong. And the first time one of these ships goes down, the debris nearly hits two truck drivers.

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

WITT: So, while we continue to mourn our deep losses from the month of October 2014, from my desk to so many in the Aerospace Valley from Ridgecrest to Palmdale, who chose this profession from so many perspectives, test pilots to office assistants and aircraft maintainers/fuelers, controllers, operations directors, emergency responders you showed your Character. To the responsible members of the nation’s press corps who patiently waited for a call back, you too have displayed character by accurately reporting and not running off with false information.

Editor’s Note: Witt is right. I screwed up when I misinterpreted SpaceShipTwo’s breakup as an explosion. Others in the media screwed up. We should have waited. We should have called. We should have done better that day. It was an honest mistake made under a lot of pressure, not an attempt to mislead anyone. Lesson learned, let’s do better next time. That is what the learning period is for, is it not?

What’s objectionable, in the context of this letter, is that Witt singles out the media as the only group that screwed up that day. This was clearly not the case. Far bigger mistakes were made that day – and during the course of a decade-long program that has claimed four lives without getting anywhere near space.

The other problem is that Witt sees the failure as a defect in character as opposed to an honest mistake. If he wants to define it that way, that’s up to him. But, if he’s going to applying such a harsh judgment to people, he needs to be consistent about it.

The fact is the press corps actually ended up disseminating far more false information after it check in with official sources, who happened to be some of Witt’s tenants and best friends. And that brings us to the final part of his letter….

WITT: To the kind notes of encouragement from all corners of the Aerospace Valley your messages were timely and most sincerely received. To my dear friends at the National Test Pilot School, Scaled Composites, The Spaceship Company and Virgin Galactic, you are collectively a “class act” and we are so very proud to serve alongside your teams.

Simply stated, I’ve never been so pleased to be a member of a small team with Character, who choose to make a big difference for our nation and the world.

Editor’s Note: Almost immediately after the crash, Virgin Galactic put out a statement in which it put complete responsibility for the test flight on its development partner, Scaled Composites. While previous tests had been trumpeted as joint flights, the implication was that Virgin Galactic had nothing to do with this failure.

It was a false claim. Virgin Galactic took part in the planning of the flight test and the remaining flight test schedule. It was Virgin’s WhiteKnightTwo that dropped the spacecraft on its final flight. One of its pilots flew the chase plane. There were Virgin Galctic employees manning key stations at Mission Control.

Where’s the class? Where’s the character?

Kevin Mickey
Kevin Mickey

Things just got worse. Four hours after Michael Alsbury died, Scaled Composites President Kevin Mickey stood before television cameras at a press conference that Witt presided over and told the nation and the world that the change from the rubber to nylon hybrid was a “minor nuance.”

This claim was blatantly false. The switch involved significant modifications to SpaceShipTwo and its propulsion system that took months to make. The changes added significant uncertainties and new failure modes to the ship being tested on that fateful Halloween morning.

I wanted to ask Mickey about his statement, but he literally ran out of the Stuart O. Witt Event Center after the press conference ended. Perhaps he had a good reason to do so; perhaps not. The result is that he gave the media and public a false understanding of the risks of that flight and then didn’t stick around to clarify anything. It doesn’t matter that the engine played no part in the crash; the claim was simply wrong.

Whatever Mickey’s statement lacked in candor, it more than made up for in consistence. This was exactly the same talking point that Virgin Galactic had been using since it announced the move to the nylon engine in May 2014. Officials claimed it was primarily a change in fuel grain with some minor plumbing changes.

At the Space Access Conference six months after the crash, Virgin Galactic Vice President of Special Projects Will Pomerantz corrected me several times when I asked him about the engine change. He insisted it was a change of fuel grain. Three months later, the NTSB released documents that proved him wrong.

The irony is that while Scaled and Virgin were hailing Alsbury as an American hero, they were downplaying the very dangers that he and Siebold faced on that flight. It wasn’t until nine months after the crash that NTSB documents confirmed the risks they were taking.

Richard Branson speaks to the press at the Mojave Air and Space Port about the crash off SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Richard Branson speaks to the press at the Mojave Air and Space Port about the crash off SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Twenty four hours after the crash, Richard Branson stood before the media and misled everyone. He said safety was Virgin’s number one priority, that the company was undertaking the “biggest test program every carried out in commercial aviation history,” implied that no ticket holders had canceled their reservations, and denied having ever met Alsbury, the brave test pilot who had died testing Sir Richard’s space plane 24 hours earlier.

Not one of these claims was accurate. Schedule, not safety, was driving the flight test program at this point. Virgin had cut the number of additional powered flight tests in the program to a handful. Because SpaceShipTwo wasn’t being certified in the same way that commercial airliners are, Branson’s description of the test flight program was patently false. As the owner of multiple airlines, it’s hard to believe he didn’t know this already.

Sources also told Parabolic Arc that ticket holders had already canceled their reservations the same day SpaceShipTwo crashed. Branson’s claim to have never met the pilot who had just died testing his space plane was another whopper; they had met on the Mojave flight line the previous year after Alsbury had been co-pilot on SpaceShipTwo’s first powered flight.

A majority of Virgin Galactic's future Astronauts gather with Sir Richard Branson (center) for a group photo at Virgin Galactic FAITH hangar in Mojave, CA September 25, 2013. AT side is the WhiteKnight2 mated with SpaceShip2. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
A majority of Virgin Galactic’s future Astronauts gather with Sir Richard Branson (center) for a group photo at Virgin Galactic FAITH hangar in Mojave, CA September 25, 2013. AT side is the WhiteKnight2 mated with SpaceShip2. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Many media ended up passing them on to the public uncritically. The one thing Branson really got really dinged on was the claim about Alsbury. There were photos and videos of their meeting. Branson later wrote a blog post that implied he had told the media that he didn’t know Alsbury well. But, that was not what he said. Branson “corrected” his misstatement with yet another one.

Rhetoric & Reality

Lest any think all the spin being put out was a fluke, the result of the trauma surrounding the accident, the reality is that it happens all the time. There’s what people say, and then there’s the reality on the ground. The gap between them can be huge at times. Between NDA agreements and the unofficial Mojave code of silence, finding the truth here is a tough job.

The truth is nobody in Mojave really gets all that upset about the media “running off with false information” as long as they uncritically report whatever claims officials are shoveling out there for public consumption. What they really get upset about is when the truth leaks out that contradicts their carefully crafted messages.

mojave_tower_sunset_smThis points to a duality about the Mojave Airport. It is a public facility run by a board elected by local residents. As a duly incorporated government, it has an obligation to the voters to run the airport responsibly and be open and candid in its communications with the public. This is the essence of good governance.

Yet, Mojave’s governing structure is unusual. The board’s authority stops at the airport fence. Unlike a town council, the airport’s board makes no decisions that directly affect the voters. The usual vibrancy of local government – residents packing board meetings to protest decisions – is lacking in airport governance. There are no political parties fighting for control.

Thus, the airport is run more like a private business. The primary constituents are the tenants who pay rent. For Witt, running the airport meant supporting these companies, protecting their work from public scrutiny, downplaying their mistakes, and maintaining radio silence as they spun the press and the public on any number of things. This approach helped the companies and the larger commercial space industry of which Witt is a leader.

Word & Actions

Witt’s intentions here to buck up Mojave during a time of crisis and give credit where credit was due were noble enough. It’s a sign of the strong leadership he demonstrated in nearly 14 years running the airport.

It’s just that the portrait he paints here is seriously at odds with the reality of that day. And ironically, it ended up giving the public a distorted picture of what happened, the very thing he decried in his op-ed as a failure of character by members of the press.

Words matter. Actions matter. A lot of people in Mojave fell short in both areas when SpaceShipTwo broke up that day. To suggest otherwise, or to selectively assign blame only to certain parties, is not fair, nor does it help us learn from our mistakes. What’s the point of a learning period if nothing changes?

It’s never a good thing when rhetoric overwhelms reality. People start believing their own bullshit. And they begin to act accordingly, focusing on what they’ve promised rather than what they can realistically deliver. An atmosphere develops that is toxic to any efforts to address the critical gap between words and actions. You need look no further than the Challenger disaster for proof.

If this was another industry – say, expendable satellite launch vehicles flown from fixed pads – there would be much less to worry about. We know how to launch those safely without endangering the un-involved public. There are clear safety protocols and strict regulations to ensure no one dies if a comsat launch goes awry.

Commercial human spaceflight doesn’t have any of those protections. The government has given the industry extraordinary freedom to do what it wants with limited oversight. In return, government has a reasonable expectation that industry will be on its best behavior.

People will be placing their lives in the hands of the flight providers. They have a right to expect candor about the risks they are taking. Otherwise, the industry is setting itself up for a big fall when someone has another bad day.

Background Reading

SpaceShipTwo’s PF-04: A High-Risk Flight

SpaceShipTwo Pilots Faced Extremely High Work Loads

A Good Light, Then a Fatal Mistake

Pete Siebold’s Harrowing Descent

Shock, Tears & Spin: The Aftermath of the SpaceShipTwo Crash

“Minor Nuance” in SpaceShipTwo’s Propulsion System Was Neither

Virgin Galactic Misled Ticket Holders, Public on Complexity of Engine Change

The Long Gap Between SpaceShipTwo Powered Flights 3 & 4 Explained

SpaceShipTwo: Lessons Learned on the Commercial Space Frontier

Dodging Disaster: A Fire, the North Star and the Mojave Code

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Former Propulsion Chief Accuses Virgin Galactic of Lying About SpaceShipTwo’s Safety, Performance Tue, 12 Jan 2016 08:00:10 +0000 SpaceShipTwo after being released for its final flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic/NTSB)
SpaceShipTwo after being released for its final flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic/NTSB)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Galactic’s former vice president of propulsion, Thomas Markusic, has accused Richard Branson’s space company of lying about the safety and performance of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism vehicle.

“Dr. Markusic was forced to separate from VG [Virgin Galactic] because the company was defrauding the public about the ability of the vehicles to reach space and was utilizing rocket engine technologies that have a high probability of causing catastrophic failure and loss of life,” according to the document.

“VG directed Dr. Markusic to lie to customers about the performance and safety of the company’s hybrid rocket technology,” the document continues. “VG asserts that Dr. Markusic secretly plotted to start his own rocket company and exploited his position at VG; whereas, in reality, Dr. Markusic’s conscience forced him to to leave.”

Virgin Galactic has dismissed the claims by Markusic, who left in January 2014 to head up a rival company, Firefly Space Systems, that is directly competing with Virgin in developing small satellite launch vehicles.

“This comment was shocking to Virgin Galactic considering that Markusic did not raise such concerns during his employment with Virgin Galactic,” the company responded. “Markusic’s ‘crisis-of-confidence’ claims also ring hollow when considered in the context of Markusic’s breach of contract counterclaim, which alleges that he expected to enter into a consulting arrangement with Virgin Galactic upon the end of his formal employment.”

Markusic’s explosive allegations are part of a year-old arbitration process Virgin Galactic launched against its former propulsion chief in December 2014. Virgin claims that Markusic secretly conspired with two SpaceShipTwo ticketholders to found Firefly while he was still employed at Branson’s company in violation of his employment agreement.

Virgin Galactic further alleges that Markusic illegally appropriated proprietary information, documents, engineering notebooks, and a business plan for use at his new company. Virgin also claims he improperly approached its employees and investors while seeking to hide his actions.

“Markusic has destroyed storage devices, disposed of computers, and reformatted hard drives to cover the tracks of his misappropriation of Virgin Galactic information,” the company alleges.

Markusic has denied the charges, saying that the rocket technology that Firefly is developing is not based on work he did at Virgin Galactic.

In legal papers, he calls Virgin’s actions “nothing more than a veiled attempt to impose a non-compete agreement against Dr. Markusic when one does not exist and in a state which prohibits such agreements….Contrary to VG’s bogus and slanderous assertions, however, Dr. Markusic has not violated any agreement or duty to VG, and VG has not suffered harm as a result of Dr. Markusic’s conduct.”

“Through this claim and the cost and the time associated in defending the claim, VG seeks to suppress future competition by tortuously interfering with Dr. Markusic’s present employment at Firefly, and seeks to stifle Firefly’s efforts to raise capital and recruit employees,” the papers state.

Virgin Galactic has asked the arbitrator, Louise A. LaMothe, to enter an award that would essentially put Firefly out of business and sideline Markusic for at least a year. Specifically, Virgin has asked for an award

“declaring that Virgin Galactic owns the technology and business plan Respondent [Markusic] is using in his new business; ordering Respondent to return to Virgin Galactic its Confidential Information; enjoining Respondent from further utilizing Virgin Galactic’s Confidential Information, including the technology and business plan Respondent developed while he was a Virgin Galactic employee, and from further soliciting Virgin Galactic’s employees; ordering Respondent to pay Virgin Galactic damages according to proof; and ordering other appropriate relief such as disgorging Respondent’s ill gotten gains and requiring Respondent to stand down from further development of his spaceship business for a period of at least one year to prevent Respondent from profiting from disloyal, illegal and contract breaching activities.”

Between May 2011 and January 2014, Markusic led the development of Virgin Galactic’s Newton family of liquid rocket motors for use in the LauncherOne booster. The NewtonThree engine also was considered as a possible replacement for the hybrid engines used in SpaceShipTwo, sources say.

A key date in the dispute is March 28, 2013. Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides had arranged a tour of the company’s facilities in Mojave, Calif., for SpaceShipTwo ticket holders P.J. King, Michael Blum and Edwin Sahakian. Markusic discussed the company’s liquid propulsion work with the three visitors.

Virgin alleges Markusic later met with King and Blum and commenced plans to form Firefly.

“At the same time Respondent told Virgin Galactic senior management that he was interested in possibly starting his own company, he hid the fact that he had already started the company and was already soliciting Virgin Galactic employees and investors using Virgin Galactic’s resources and technology while he was still working at Virgin Galactic,” the arbitration demand states.

Markusic says he was upfront with Virgin Galactic management about his plans to leave as they evolved throughout 2013. In the summer, he met with Whitesides and President Steve Isakowitz to propose that he start a rocket parts company and become a supplier to Virgin Galactic, according to legal papers.

Markusic says he informed Whitesides in November that he was leaving the company. Whitesides asked him to stay employed for a few more weeks and not to publicize his departure for six months because Virgin was attempting to sell the rocket team to Google, Markusic said in legal papers.

Virgin Galactic claims their propulsion chief left because he became frustrated with the company’s rejection of some of his rocket engine proposals. Markusic points to safety concerns and a lack of confidence in the company as key reasons for his departure.

“On or before April 21, 2013, the Respondent became increasingly concerned about Virgin Galactic’s viability and increasingly concerned about the safety of Space Ship II,” according to an arbitration document. “The Respondent also become increasingly concerned by representations being made by Virgin Galactic about Space Ship II’s safety and performance.”

At that time, Virgin was making expansive safety claims about SpaceShipTwo on its website.

“Safety is Virgin Galactic’s North Star,” the company stated. “Our excitement in 2002 on discovering Burt Rutan’s plans for SpaceShipOne focused on a number of design features which we believed in their own right could make the vehicles many thousands of times safer than any manned space craft of the past. Overlay that with Virgin’s experience in transportation operations and there potentially existed a unique opportunity to transform levels of safety from day one; a prerequisite for any responsible operator and in particular for Virgin Galactic. “

Virgin also advertised the “simplicity and safety” of SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid motor, claiming that the nitrous oxide and rubber used in it were “both benign, stable as well as containing none of the toxins found in solid rocket motors.”

The April 21, 2013 date Markusic cites was eight days prior to SpaceShipTwo’s first powered flight test. On an April 29 flight, the ship’s hybrid engine fired for 16 seconds. Subsequent tests in September and January included engine firings of 20 seconds apiece. On the third flight, SpaceShipTwo reached a maximum altitude of 71,000 – far below the internationally recognized boundary of space of 328,084 feet (100 km or 62.1 miles) known as the Karman line.

Sources have told Parabolic Arc that during that period Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, which built SpaceShipTwo, were struggling to get the hybrid engine to work. If the engine had been fired to full duration of about a minute, it would have caused dangerous vibrations and oscillations in the spacecraft.

SpaceShipTwo’s performance was also adversely affected by extra weight it gained during its construction.  In 2014, Virgin Galactic officials admitted that the spacecraft could not reach 100 km (62.1 mile). SpaceShipTwo would instead fly to the 50 mile (80 km) boundary of space the U.S. Air Force used for awarding astronaut wings to X-15 pilots in the 1960’s.

Although Virgin Galactic had publicly advertised that SpaceShipTwo would fly above the Karman line, the company’s agreement with ticket holders only stipulates a flight to at least 50 miles (80 km).

Virgin Galactic’s arbitration against Markusic proceeded in private for a year before becoming public last month. Firefly’s King filed a public lawsuit in Los Angeles seeking to reduce the scope of a ruling signed by arbitrator LaMothe ordering Markusic, King, Blum and Firefly to turn over company documents, computers and other materials to Virgin Galactic for review.

The lawsuit states that King should be excluded from turning over documents because he was not a party to the employment agreement Markusic signed with Virgin Galactic. It also accuses Virgin Galactic of launching “an astonishingly broad fishing expedition to discover the proprietary and trade secret information of what it perceives to be a new competitor, Firefly.”

A hearing on King’s suit against Virgin Galactic is scheduled for Friday in Los Angeles.

On Dec. 28, Virgin Galactic filed a legal action in Clark County, Nev,, to compel Blum to comply with the arbitrator’s ruling to turn over documents to Virgin Galactic. A hearing on that suit is scheduled for Jan. 29 in Las Vegas.

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Video of Virgin Galactic 747 Unveiling Event Wed, 09 Dec 2015 13:42:34 +0000

Video Caption: Cosmic Girl, a 747-400, is Virgin Galactic’s newest vehicle in our space access fleet and the new, dedicated carrier aircraft for our LauncherOne small satellite launcher. Meet some of Cosmic Girl’s stewards and learn why a 747 is the right choice for small satellite launch.

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