Flashback: Virgin Galactic Announces Switch From Rubber to Nylon Engine

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

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

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

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

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Year in Review: A Look at Virgin Galactic Developments in 2014

WhiteKnightTwo visited Spaceport America for the first time in three years on Wednesday. Below, you can see a full-scale model of SpaceShipTwo on the ramp. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
WhiteKnightTwo visited Spaceport America for the first time in three years on Wednesday. Below, you can see a full-scale model of SpaceShipTwo on the ramp. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Continuing our look back at 2014, we review progress at Virgin Galactic. While the loss of SpaceShipTwo on Oct. 31 understandably dominated the headlines, there were a number of other newsworthy developments at the company last year.

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Space Conferences, Engine Claims and Silly Putty

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

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

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

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

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

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Whitesides Responds to Bower’s Allegation About SpaceShipTwo’s Engine

branson_behind_the_maskVirgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides has responded to Tom Bower’s new book, “Branson: Behind the Mask.” The author makes a series of claims about the performance and safety of the nitrous oxide-rubber engine that is scheduled to send SpaceShipTwo on a suborbital flight later this year.

Whitesides wrote a letter to The Sunday Times, which began serializing the biography a week ago. The response, published on Feb. 2, is reproduced below:

Dear Sir:

Tom Bower’s claims in extracts from his new book on Richard Branson that Virgin Galactic has “no licence” and “no rocket” to go to space (“Lost in space” and “The sun lizard fading into exile”, News Review, last week) misrepresent the facts and use old information to create a story. Indeed the recent progress of the Galactic programme, including the latest rocket powered flight, renders Bower’s main claims false.

The company’s rocket motor has burned for the full duration and thrust multiple times, and the company released video footage of one such test in December. Bower also fails to note that the team has an experimental permit from the Federal Aviation Administration for the test flight programme phase.

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Virgin Galactic Suddenly Very Chatty About Engine Progress

Newton engine (Credi: Virgin Galactic)
Newton engine (Credi: Virgin Galactic)

The exclusive, multi-platform partnership that Virgin Galactic has forged with NBCUniversal has begun to bear fruit over the past two months. The media giant has signed on to chronicle Sir Richard Branson’s flight aboard SpaceShipTwo and all the events leading up to it.

In November, Sir Richard Branson phoned into CNBC from his Necker Island retreat in the Caribbean to announce that Virgin Galactic would begin accepting the virtual currency Bitcoin for SpaceShipTwo reservations.

A month later, NBC News got into the act, with Science Editor Alan Boyle and a film crew trekking out to Mojave for a powered flight of SpaceShipTwo. They went away disappointed when the test was scrubbed due to a rare patch of bad weather in the High Desert.

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Scaled Updates RM2 Hot Fire Logs — and Boy Are They Useless

Nitrous nylon engine test on Jan. 16, 2014. (Credit: Ken Brown)
Nitrous nylon engine test on Jan. 16, 2014 at the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Ken Brown)

After a two-month gap, Scaled Composites has updated the RocketMotorTwo Hot-Fire Test Summaries page on its website with details of four motor tests run since Nov. 14.

Before you get too excited about this, be aware that the updates actually obscure more than they reveal. The summaries indicate that engine tests took place on specific days, but they provide no real details on what was tested, how long it was fired, or how the tests fit into the overall engine development program. The logs provide an impression of progress and openness while hiding deeper problems in the engine program.

Why are they doing these things? And what exactly are they hiding? Those are really good questions that I will attempt to answer.

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