2019: A Busy Year in Suborbital Flight

Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable, suborbital rocket. (Credits: Blue Origin)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Last year was a busy one for suborbital flights as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic conducted a combined four flights of their crewed suborbital vehicles. Despite hopes to the contrary, neither company flew paying tourists on their spaceships.

There were also 26 sounding rocket launches that carried scientific experiments and technology payloads above the atmosphere. The year saw:

  • Japanese startup Interstellar Technologies conduct a successful launch of its Momo commercial sounding rocket;
  • Texas-based Exos Aerospace continue to struggle with its reusable SARGE booster; and,
  • the first suborbital launch ever achieved by college students.
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Collaboratory Formed to Promote New Mexico’s Spaceport America During Closed Door Meeting

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

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Officials from New Mexico, the federal government and Virgin Galactic met last week behind closed doors for the state’s first Space Valley Summit to form a “collaboratory” to promote Spaceport America and the state’s aerospace economy.

The one group not invited: taxpayers who have forked over about $250 million to build the spaceport where Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant. As the Las Cruces Sun News dryly noted

Minutes after [Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham] exhorted the summit to “make sure every New Mexican … knows exactly what is happening here,” all reporters were asked to leave. 

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Private Equity Firm Purchased Stratolaunch

Stratolaunch flies (Credit: Stratolaunch)

Alan Boyle at Geek Wire reports that a private equity firm owned by a billionaire Donald Trump supporter that specializes n distressed companies is the new owners of Sttratolaunch.

Sounds about right. Stratolaunch has always been the indulgence of a billionaire. And it was certainly distressed.

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Mojave Spaceport Receives $8 Million Grant to Renovate Taxiway

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

WASHINGTON, DC (Kevin McCarthy PR) — Today, Congressman Kevin McCarthy announced that the Department of Transportation approved an $8 million grant for the Mojave Air and Space Port through the Airport Improvement Program (AIP). Last year, McCarthy sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration in support of Mojave’s grant application. 

“From Stratolaunch to Virgin Orbit, Mojave Air and Space Port is leading the way in civilian aeronautics and commercial spaceflight,” said McCarthy. “But in order to continue to take the next steps towards even greater innovation in the industry, it is vital that Mojave Air and Space Port’s infrastructure is revitalized.

“This AIP grant will help make much needed repairs to existing infrastructure issues – like pavement cracks – to enhance airport safety. I thank Secretary Chao, the Department of Transportation, and the Federal Aviation Administration for recognizing the importance of this project. This grant will undoubtedly help ensure the longevity of this facility for years to come.”

Background

  • The renovation of Taxiway C includes an area 7,200 ft. long and 60 ft. wide. 
  • The project will include an analysis of the airfield electrical system.  

Mojave to Celebrate First Long EZ Flight

Burt Rutan (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Mojave will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first flight of the Rutan Long EZ aircraft this week during the monthly Plane Crazy Saturday event.

40th Anniversary of the First Flight of the Rutan Long EZ
Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019
10 am to 2 pm

  • Static Aircraft Display – Historic Aircraft Display Day
  • Guest speakers presentation by Burt Rutan, Dick Rutan and pilot Mike Melvill at 11 am at the Stuart O. Witt Event Center
  • Luncheon and raffle at the Witt Center at 1 p.m.
  • Art, shirts, hats, books & collectibles for sale 
  • Voyager Restaurant opens at 7 a.m

Tickets for the fund-raising luncheon are $30. Reserve your today at http://mojavemuseum.org/plane-crazy-saturday/ .

A Short Review of Virgin Galactic’s Long History

SpaceShipTwo fires its hybrid engine. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Today, Sept. 27, marks the 15th anniversary of Richard Branson announcing the launch of Virgin Galactic Airways. It’s been a long, winding road between that day and today, filled with many broken promises, missed deadlines, fatal accidents and a pair of spaceflights.

This year actually marks a double anniversary: it’s been 20 years since Branson registered the company and began searching for a vehicle the company could use to fly tourists into suborbital space.

Below is a timeline of the important events over that period.

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Virgin Orbit Ships First Flight-ready LauncherOne Booster to Mojave

The first flight-ready LauncherOne booster. (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

Virgin Orbit has shipped its first flight-ready LauncherOne up the road from Long Beach, Calif. to the Mojave Air and Space Port, where it is undergoing a series of tests before being air launched from the Cosmic Girl Boeing 747 carrier aircraft on the program’s first flight test.

Our latest rocket — which has already been fully integrated, tested, checked, re-checked, analyzed, and triple-checked — is destined for a rigorous crucible of engineering demonstrations and tests of its own. The final demonstration for this rocket will also be the biggest test we’ve attempted as a team: during that test, we’ll fire up LauncherOne’s engine in flight and head for space for the first time.

[….]

Our orbital test flight rocket is currently being installed into a newly built test stand in Mojave, where in the coming weeks we’ll run through a number of critical exercises, including loading and fueling with our mobile ground support equipment. We are prepping and practicing, making sure we know how to do everything we could conceivably ever need to do.  Then, it’s off to the skies — first for a captive carry flight, and then for the launch itself.

Spaceport America and Virgin Galactic: The Numbers Never Added Up

Richard Branson and his children hang out with Project Bandaloop dancers during the dedication of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space facility. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Fourteen years ago, Virgin Galactic and New Mexico promised “tens of thousands” of tourists would fly to space from Spaceport America by 2019. Total thus far: 0.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

When they announced in December 2005 that Virgin Galactic would locate its space tourism business in New Mexico, Virgin Founder Richard Branson and Gov. Bill Richardson made a number of eye-popping claims about why taxpayers should back a plan to build the Southwest Regional Spaceport to serve as the space tourism company’s home base:

  • $331 million in total construction revenues in 2007;
  • 2,460 construction-related jobs;
  • $1 billion in total spending, payroll of $300 million and 2,300 jobs by the fifth year of operation; and,
  • $750 million in total revenues and more than 3,500 jobs by 2020.

Virgin Galactic would sign a 20-year lease as anchor tenant and pay fees based on the number of launches it conducted. New Mexico would use the spaceport, Virgin’s presence and the funds generated to develop a large aerospace cluster.

Surprisingly, New Mexico would spend more money, $225 million, to develop a facility now known as Spaceport America than the $108 million that Branson planned to spend on developing a fleet of five SpaceShipTwos and WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.

Among all the big numbers in the announcement, there was a truly astounding one that was deemed so important it was mentioned twice. (Emphasis added)

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Virgin Galactic Reaches Milestone Building SpaceShipTwo No. 3

SpaceShipTwo no. 3 (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

MOJAVE, Calif. (Virgin Galactic PR) — Virgin Galactic announced today that it has mated the fuselage and cabin of its next spaceship to the completed wing assembly. In addition, the two tail booms have been mated to the spaceship’s rear feather flap assembly. The completion of these two milestones brings assembly of the next SpaceShipTwo, planned to enter service after VSS Unity, a major step forward. 

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Video: Virgin Galactic Opens Gateway to Space

Virgin Galactic opened its Gateway to Space at Spaceport America in New Mexico to the press on Thursday. The opening came nearly eight years after Sir Richard Branson opened the hangar/terminal facility during a dedication ceremony in October 2011.

Earlier this week, the WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve carrier aircraft relocated to Spaceport America from Mojave. Calif. SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity is set to join it later this year for a series of three or four additional suborbital flight tests.

Branson plans to be aboard the first commercial flight from the New Mexico spaceport next year.

WhiteKnightTwo Departs Mojave for New Mexico

A Virgin Galactic spokeswoman tells me that SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity remains in Mojave as its passenger cabin is fitted out for commercial flights.

The spacecraft is set to join WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve at Spaceport America in New Mexico later this year to complete a series of flights that began in Mojave. Commercial suborbital flights are set to begin from there in 2020.

The company is planning an event on Thursday, Aug. 15, in which they will unveil the inside of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space in New Mexico.

It’s Show-and-Tell Time Again for Virgin Galactic in New Mexico

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Nearly eight years after Richard Branson dedicated the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space at Spaceport America before a crowd that included Titanic star Kate Winslet and British royal Princess Beatrice, his suborbital space tourism company is moving its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft there.

When Branson dedicated the gateway facility in October 2011, the giant building was largely empty. Virgin Galactic says it is now ready to show off what customers will experience inside the structure.

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Virgin Orbit Loses 35 OneWeb Launches, Sues Over Termination Fee

Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl 747 performs its first captive carry of LauncherOne. (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

When the contract was announced in June 2015, it seemed like a blockbuster deal:  satellite Internet provider OneWeb had placed an order for 39 launches with options for 100 more for Virgin Galactic’s (now Virgin Orbit’s) LauncherOne.

What made the order extraordinary was not just the large number of launches, but the fact that the rocket really didn’t even exist yet. (The fact that Richard Branson’s Virgin Group was an investor in OneWeb probably helped.)

Four years later, the blockbuster deal is a bust. According to a lawsuit filed this week by Virgin Orbit, OneWeb last year canceled 35 of the 39 planned launches., slicing most of the value from the $234 million deal.

SpaceNews reports that Virgin Orbit orbit is suing for $46.32 million it claims OneWeb owes it from a $70 million contract termination fee.

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Report: StratoGoose is Cooked

Stratolaunch takes off. (Credit: Stratolaunch)

Reuters has confirmed reports that Parabolic Arc has been hearing for months here in Mojave: Stratolaunch’s goose is cooked.

Stratolaunch Systems Corporation, the space company founded by late billionaire and Microsoft Corp co-founder Paul Allen, is closing operations, cutting short ambitious plans to challenge traditional aerospace companies in a new “space race,” four people familiar with the matter said on Friday….

[Parent company] Vulcan has been exploring a possible sale of Stratolaunch’s assets and intellectual property, according to one of the four sources and also a fifth person….

The decision to set an exit strategy was made late last year by Allen’s sister, Jody Allen, chair of Vulcan Inc and trustee of the Paul G. Allen Trust, one of the four people and the fifth industry source said.

Jody Allen decided to let the carrier aircraft fly to honor her brother’s wishes and also to prove the vehicle and concept worked, one of the four people said.

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