Richard Branson Gets His Astronaut Wings, Aims to Eliminate Asterisk* Next Time

Unity 22 crew: Michael Masucci, Colin Bennett, Richard Branson, Sirisha Bandla, David Mackay and Beth Moses at the 37th Space Symposium. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
  • Billionaire aims to go higher and faster next time
  • Virgin Galactic still can’t get SpaceShipTwo all the way up (to Karman line)
  • FAA throws in the towel on deciding who is and who isn’t an astronaut

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Earlier this month, Richard Branson and two Virgin Galactic employees received commercial astronaut wings from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity flight test they took part in last July. The trio was the last group to receive the wings — FAA ended the program last year — and the honors came with a pretty big asterisk.

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Former Top Federal Regulator to Fly on Unregulated Spaceship

Jeff Bezos pins Blue Origin astronaut wings on actor William Shatner. (Credit: Blue Origin webcast)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The first three passenger flights of Blue Origin’s New Shepard have been long on symbolism. On the first one, Jeff Bezos invited Wally Funk, who in 1960 was one of 13 women who underwent the same medical checks as the Original Seven Mercury astronauts. NASA wasn’t accepting female pilots at the time, so Funk had to wait 51 years to reach space.

New Shepard’s second flight included starship Capt. James T. Kirk, or more precisely, the actor who played the “Star Trek” captain, William Shatner. The third flight had Laura Shepard Churchley, the daughter of America’s first astronaut to fly to space, who launched aboard a vehicle named after her father, Alan.

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FAA Decides Bezos, Branson and Shatner Are Astronauts After All

  • Everyone who exceeds 50 miles by Dec. 31 will receive commercial astronaut wing even if they were just passengers
  • Nobody after that will even if they pilot a ship
  • Agency reverses earlier decision to award wings only to those essential to flight operations/success
  • FAA says this is what was intended all along

WASHINGTON (FAA PR) – With the advent of the commercial space tourism era, starting in 2022, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will now recognize individuals who reach space on its website instead of issuing Commercial Space Astronaut Wings. Any individual who is on an FAA-licensed or permitted launch and reaches 50 statute miles above the surface of the Earth will be listed on the site. 

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FAA Examination of Blue Origin Safety Issues Likely to be Very Narrow

New Shepard launch (Credit: Blue Origin webcast)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has said it will examine safety issues about Blue Origin’s crewed suborbital New Shepard vehicle raised by a group of current and former employees in an open letter published on Thursday.

The announcement comes 11 days before four paying customers, one reported to be Star Trek star William Shatner, are scheduled to board New Shepard for a trip to space. While a federal safety review might sound reassuring to these ticket holders, what does it actually mean in practice?

Probably not much.

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Report: Branson’s Flight into Space Experienced Serious Anomaly; Company Fired Flight Test Director

Richard Branson and other passengers float around in weightlessness. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

By all appearances, Richard Branson’s 17-years-in-the-making flight to the edge of space went exactly as planned on July 11. Or at least that was the impression left by Virgin Galactic’s webcast of SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity’s flight test from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

But, for the second time in four suborbital flights, VSS Unity experienced a serious anomaly. The ship with its hybrid engine firing wasn’t rising steeply enough as it soared toward space, Nicholas Schmidle reports in The New Yorker:

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“Test God” Out as Virgin Galactic’s Director of Flight Test

Well, one day you’re a “God,” the next day you’re on the unemployment line.

Such was fate of Mark Stucky, who was Virgin Galactic’s lead pilot and director of flight test. On Tuesday, he announced on his Linkedin page that he had left the position. When asked why, he replied,

“Departing a company not on my own timeline was a first for me.”

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As Virgin Galactic Crew Celebrated Second Suborbital Flight, Problems Loomed Behind the Scenes

Chief Pilot David Mackay celebrates a successful flight with champagne as Chief Astronaut Beth Moses looks on. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Newly arrived back on Earth after a quick visit to space, Virgin Galactic Chief Astronaut Beth Moses was effusive as she described the suborbital flight she had just taken aboard the company’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, VSS Unity.

“Richard, you’re going to love it!” she told Virgin Chairman Richard Branson, who had remotely monitored the Feb. 22, 2019 flight that had taken place over California’s Mojave Desert.

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Virgin Galactic Looks on the Bright Side After Launch Abort

WhiteKnightTwo takes off with SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity from Spaceport America in New Mexico. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

It was a flight 22 months in the making. But, when it came time for the rubber to meet the oxidizer, the whole thing suddenly flamed out.

The hybrid engine on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity failed to fire properly on Saturday, sending the suborbital rocket plane, pilots David Mackay and C.J. Sturckow and a load of NASA-sponsored experiments into a rapid descent and landing back at Spaceport America, instead of a graceful parabolic arc into suborbital space.

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Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo Conducts Flight Test on Eve of Earnings Call

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

One week before Virgin Galactic is expected to report another large quarterly loss, the company’s WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve took to the skies on Thursday over Spaceport America for the first time since June 25.

The flight was the first of four tests designed to pave the way for Virgin Galactic to begin commercial SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism flights with VSS Unity during the first quarter of next year.

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NASA to Fund Researchers to Fly on Suborbital Vehicles, Maybe Astronauts

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

After spending a few years in hibernation, the Next-generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC) is being held in Colorado this week. I wasn’t able to attend this year, but I’ve been following all the action on Twitter.

In a keynote address on Monday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine floated the idea of letting the space agency’s astronauts fly aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicles. He also discussed certifying the systems to comply with a subset of NASA’s human ratings requirements.

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Virgin Galactic Begins End Game as SpaceShipTwo Unity Relocated to New Mexico

SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity arrives at Spaceport America aboard WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Four years after it was first rolled out, Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity left the Mojave Air and Space Port in California on Thursday for its new home at in New Mexico, where it will undergo final flight testing and preparation for commercial suborbital space flights.

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Alsbury’s Name Added to Space Mirror Memorial

Scaled Composites pilot Mike Alsbury died in the break up of SpaceShipTwo Enterprise on Oct. 31, 2014. The memorial at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center includes pilots who died during spaceflight and those in training for them.

Five Years Ago SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise Crashed in the Mojave Desert

The spot where part of SpaceShipTwo’s cockpit crashed with the body of Mike Alsbury. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Five years ago today, SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise broke up over the Mojave Desert during a flight test. Co-pilot Mike Alsbury died and pilot Pete Siebold was seriously injured.

The crash ended Virgin Galactic’s effort to begin commercial crewed suborbital spaceflights in the first quarter of 2015. Those flights are not forecast to begin in June 2020 — five years later than planned.

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A Brief History of Spaceport America

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

UPDATED: 8/20/19, 12:08 p.m. PDT

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Sometime in 2020, if all goes according to plan, British billionaire Richard Branson will board Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity at Spaceport America in New Mexico and take the first commercial suborbital space flight in history.

The landmark flight, which Virgin has been trying to conduct for 15 years, will also be the culmination of a 30-year effort by New Mexico to become a commercial space power.

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Alsbury to be Honored on Space Mirror Memorial

Mike Alsbury (Credit: Scaled Composites)

Mike Alsbury never made it to space, but he will be honored on a memorial to fallen astronauts in Florida.

The Astronaut Memorial Foundation (AMF) has voted to add Alsbury’s name to the Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

The Scaled Composites pilot died over the Mojave Desert in the breakup of SpaceShipTwo Enterprise during a flight test on Oct. 31, 2014. Pete Siebold was seriously injured as he parachuted to safety.

AMF needed to change its criteria in order to place Alsbury’s name on the mirror. Previous rules limited the list to 24 men and women who died during human spaceflight missions or while in training for such missions sponsored by the United States government.

Alsbury was on a private flight test for his employer, which was developing the SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism vehicle for Virgin Galactic. The flight was not scheduled to reach suborbital space, which the United States defines as 50 miles (80.4 km).