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.
Pete Siebold and Mike Alsbury heard the sound of hooks disengaging and felt a sharp jolt as SpaceShipTwo was released from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship. Relieved of a giant weight, WhiteKnightTwo shot upward as the spacecraft plunged toward the desert floor.
“Fire,” Siebold said as the shadow of one of WhiteKnightTwo’s wings passed across the cabin.
“Arm,” Alsbury responded. “Fire.”
The pilots were pushed back into their seats as SpaceShipTwo’s nylon-nitrous oxide hybrid engine ignited behind them, sending the ship soaring skyward on a pillar of flames.
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.
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.
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.
Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson was interviewed for the Jan. 30 edition of NPR’s “How I Built This” podcast. Beginning at 25:44, there’s a brief discussion of the October 2014 crash that destroyed the first SpaceShipTwo and killed co-pilot Mike Alsbury.
Branson recalls that for the first 12 hours after the accident he wasn’t sure if the SpaceShipTwo program would continue. “But, once we realized it was a pilot error and not a technical error, I was able to tell all the engineers it was nothing to do with them. And that the basic craft was sound.”
It was raining in the desert. It was coming down in buckets.
A cold, hard rain was slamming against the windows of the house. The first real rain since….I couldn’t even remember. That’s how rare rain is out here. Months and months go by with little or no rainfall.
Virgin Galactic plans to conduct the first glide test of the second SpaceShipTwo on Tuesday, Nov. 1. It will be the first flight of the spaceship and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft since a captive carry test on Sept. 8.
The flight, which will take place from the Mojave Air and Space Port, will come two years and 1 day after the first SpaceShipTwo broke up during a powered test flight, killing Scaled Composites pilot Mike Alsbury and injuring pilot Pete Siebold.
Virgin Galactic pilot C.J. Sturckow confirmed the date of the flight test during an event on Saturday at the Explorers Club in New York City, according to SpaceNews reporter Jeff Foust.
Sturckow told attendees Virgin Galactic plans “‘spot check’ the glide flight envelope of SS2 and move into powered flight tests in early 2017,” according to a tweet posted by Foust.
How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, An Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight by Julian Guthrie Penguin Press, 2016 Hardcover, 448 pages ISBN 978-1-59420-672-6 US $28/Canada $37
Reviewed by Douglas Messier
On Sept. 8, I arrived home at about half past noon to find a package sitting on my doorstep. It was a review copy of a new book by Julian Guthrie about the Ansari XPrize and SpaceShipOne titled, How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, An Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight.
I laughed. The timing was perfect. Ken Brown and I had just spent five hours in the desert — most of them in the rising heat of a late summer day — waiting for WhiteKnightTwo to take off carrying SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity on its first captive carry test flight.
It was the first flight in nearly two years of a SpaceShipTwo vehicle since Unity’s sister ship, VSS Enterprise, had broken up during a Halloween test flight, killing co-pilot Mike Alsbury. Ken and I had been there on that day, too.
Two major flight-related anniversaries are being celebrated this week. Today marks the 89th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic aboard the Spirit of St. Louis. Lucky Lindy took off from New York on this date and arrived in Paris some 33.5 hours later, claiming the $25,000 Orteig Prize.
Wednesday was the 20th anniversary of the launch of X Prize (later Ansari X Prize). Inspired by the Orteig Prize, it offered $10 million for the first privately build vehicle to fly to suborbital space twice within two weeks. The Ansari X Prize was won in October 2004 by a team led by Burt Rutan and Paul Allen with SpaceShipOne.
After Lindbergh’s flight, a public that had previously shunned commercial aviation embraced it with a passion. Following the Ansari X Prize, Richard Branson vowed to begin flying tourists to space aboard a successor vehicle, SpaceShipTwo, within three years. Nearly a dozen years and four deaths later, Branson has yet to fulfill this promise.
The SpaceShipTwo program has now taken longer than it took for NASA to go from President John F. Kennedy proposal to land a man on the moon to the completion of the program with the splashdown of Apollo 17. NASA launched the space shuttle Columbia exactly 20 years after the first spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin.
So, why have things taken so long? And why did one prize succeed beyond the dreams of its sponsor, while the space prize it inspired has promised so few practical results? The answer is a complex one that I addressed back in March in a story titled, “Prizes, Technology and Safety.” I’ve republished the story below with links to other posts in a series about flight safety.
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.
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.
In his autobiography, Chuck Yeager dismissed Tom Wolfe’s “right stuff” as a meaningless phrase for describing a pilot’s attributes. Good pilots are not born, they are made. Yeager attributed his success to a combination of natural abilities (good coordination, excellent eyesight, intuitive understanding of machinery, coolness under pressure) and good old-fashioned hard work. He worked his tail off learning how to fly, learned everything he could about the aircraft he flew, and spent more time flying them than anyone else.
As far as C.J. Sturckow could tell, everything was going perfectly. Flying an Extra plane at 14,000 feet above Koehn Lake, he and photographer Mark Greenberg watched SpaceShipTwo drop cleanly from WhiteKnightTwo and light its engine. The rocket ignition was “beautiful,” the plume color looked fine, the ship’s trajectory appeared to be right on the mark. And then–