Doug Shane & Jonathan Firth Depart Virgin Galactic, TSC

Doug Shane

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Richard Branson’s Mojave-based space companies have seen two high-level departures in recent months as they prepare to  launch SpaceShipTwo on a spaceflight for the first time.

Doug Shane has left his position as chairman of The Spaceship Company (TSC), which builds SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism vehicles, WhiteKnightTwo mother ships, and propulsion systems for Virgin Galactic.

Shane remains a member of the company’s board of advisors. A Virgin Galactic spokesman said the company has not replaced Shane as chairman.

Jonathan Firth, who served as executive vice president of spaceport and program development, has also left Virgin Galactic after 14 years with the company.  Firth’s Linkin page indicates he has left Virgin Galactic but does not say when he did so.

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Richard Branson Pops into Mojave to Check on Progress of Spaceflight Quest

Mojave Air and Space Port on a rare cloudy day. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Some day, Richard Branson might fly to space, gaze out the window, and see stars with his naked eyes, unencumbered by the Earth’s atmosphere or the optics of a telescope.

For the moment, he has to settle for his own fame and a star encased in concrete along the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The British billionaire was in Los Angeles last month for the unveiling of his star on that famous boulevard. While he was in the neighborhood, he popped up to the Mojave Air and Space Port, where Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company are working to make his dream of spaceflight a reality.

Given his early October prediction that Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity would fly to space in “weeks, not months,” one might have expected him to be here to view a spaceflight he has been promising for the past 14 years.

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DARPA Names Potential Sites for Launch Challenge, Eighteen Teams Prequalify

DARPA Launch Challenge candidate sites (Credit: DARPA)

ARLINGTON, Va. (NASA PR) — DARPA has narrowed the potential launch locations for the DARPA Launch Challenge to eight, with options for both vertical and horizontal launch. The challenge will culminate in late 2019 with two separate launches to low Earth orbit within weeks of each other from two different sites. Competitors will receive information about the final launch sites, payloads, and targeted orbit in the weeks prior to each launch.

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What The New Yorker Gets Wrong About the SpaceShipTwo Accident

SpaceShipTwo debris in storage. (Credit: NTSB)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Psychologists have identified five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These stages are clearly on display in Virgin Galactic’s Rocket Man, Nicholas Schmidle’s profile of Mark Stucky in The New Yorker. A substantial part of the story chronicles how the test pilot dealt with the death of his close friend, Mike Alsbury, in the breakup of SpaceShipTwo Enterprise during the vehicle’s fourth powered flight four years ago.

It’s a touching portrait of Stucky’s grief for his fellow Scaled Composites pilot, with whom he had flown while testing the suborbital spacecraft being developed for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. (Stucky later moved over to Virgin, which took over the SpaceShipTwo program after the accident, to test the second SpaceShipTwo, Unity.)

However, Schmidle tells only half the story in his otherwise insightful profile. He places nearly all the blame on Alsbury, while ignoring the findings of a nine-month federal investigation that identified systemic flaws in the development program and the government’s oversight that contributed to the accident.

It’s similar to the flawed, self-serving narrative that Branson used in his latest autobiography, “Finding My Virginity,” complete with a not-entirely-fair jab at the press coverage of the crash. The billionaire uses pilot error to obscure a decade of fatal mistakes and miscalculations.
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Paul Allen Passes Away From Cancer at 65

Paul G. Allen (By Miles Harris – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26491255)

Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen — who funded private spaceships, one of the largest aircraft in the world, and the search for life elsewhere in the Universe – has died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was 65.

“It is with deep sadness that we announce the death of @PaulGAllen, our founder and noted technologist, philanthropist, community builder, conservationist, musician and supporter of the arts, All of us who worked with Paul feel an inexpressible loss today,” Allen’s company, Vulcan, Inc., announced in a tweet.

Allen poured the billions he made from Microsoft into a number of business and philanthropic ventures, including three space projects. He spent $28 million to back Burt Rutan’s entry in the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million competition for the first privately-built crewed vehicle to reach space twice within a two-week period.

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Branson Says SpaceShipTwo Will Reach Space Within Weeks

Richard Branson rolls out Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Unity in Mojave. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Richard Branson is back in the headlines again talking schedules for SpaceShipTwo.

“We should be in space within weeks, not months. And then we will be in space with myself in months and not years,” the Virgin founder and CEO told CNBC’s Nancy’s Hungerford at the Barclays Asia Forum in Singapore Tuesday.

You can read the rest of the interview — in which he repeats the same things he’s been saying for the last 14 years — here.

What I think this means is that another flight test is coming soon. On the last one back in July, they fired the engine for 42 seconds. I would expect the upcoming flight will entail a full engine burn of about 60 seconds. This is a deduction on my part; there’s just not a lot of places to go in terms of burn length.

A full burn would get SpaceShipTwo to some definition of space. The international beginning of space — known as the Karman line — is 100 km (62.1 miles). The U.S. Air Force (USAF) awarded astronaut wings to X-15 pilots who flew to at least 50 miles (80.4 km) during the 1960’s.

Virgin Galactic’s agreement with its ticket holders uses the USAF standard as the minimum altitude promised. Since there are no mile markers up there, the view will be similar but the amount of time in microgravity will be slightly less than if the vehicle gets to the Karman line.

Several additional test flights are expected before Branson boards the first official commercial flight at Spaceport America in New Mexico. At this point, I’m guessing that will happen some time in 2019.

Stratolaunch Aircraft Taxis at Mojave

The Stratolaunch carrier aircraft on runway 12-30 at the Mojave Air and Space Port during a taxi test on Friday. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Stratolaunch’s massive carrier aircraft performed a taxi test down runway 12-30 at the Mojave Air and Space Port on Friday afternoon.

The airplane, which is designed to air-launch rockets, appeared to make several short moves at the southeast end of the runway before beginning its taxi test. It stopped twice during the taxi test before arriving at the end of the runway.

The twin-fuselage plane veered to one side on several occasions during the test, resulting in the pilots correcting the vehicle’s path. It was not clear whether this movement was part of the test.

The aircraft, which has a wingspan of 385 ft (117.3 m), was towed backwards along the runway before being returned to its hangar.

Scaled Composites built the aircraft with funding from Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen.

The Adventures of SpaceShipTwo: Inverted Flight, Wonky Gyros & an Impatient Billionaire

SpaceShipTwo glides to a landing at Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Nicholas Schmidle has an interesting profile of Virgin Galactic test pilot Mark Stucky in the New Yorker that sheds some light on what’s been going on at Richard Branson’s space company. I’ve excerpted some interesting passages below.

If you’ve been watching the videos of  SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity‘s first three powered flights and thinking to yourself, Gee, it looks like that thing really wants to roll…well, you’d be right. Here’s an account of the first flight on April 5.
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Mojave Spaceport Accepts $1.36 Million From FAA for Taxiway B Extension

Taxiway B at the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Google Maps)

The Mojave Air and Space Port’s Board of Directors on Tuesday voted to accept a grant totaling $1,364,086 from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for a 600-foot extension of Taxiway B. The grant is larger than the $1.05 million announced by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on Aug. 3.

The board also approved an application to the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) for a matching grant of up to 5 percent of the project’s total. The maximum amount received would be $68,024; however, CalTrans might cap the award at $25,000.

If the full state matching grant is awarded, total outside funding for the project would amount to $1,432,110.

The board also awarded three contracts for the taxiway extension:

  • Granite Construction: $1,099,135
  • RB Development (lighting): $53,263
  • Aviation Striping (painting): $19,085.

Mojave Airport CEO Karina Drees said the grants would pay for a 600-foot extension of the taxiway. The extension would allow for the construction of an additional hangar to the west of Virgin Galactic’s FAITH facility.

The airport hoped to extend the taxiway even further with a turnaround  at the end for aircraft. However, the FAA grant is insufficient to allow for the completion of the taxiway.

Mojave Receives $1 Million for Taxiway B Extension

Taxiway B at the Mojave Air and Space Port will be extended into the field on the left of the photo. (Credit: Google Maps)

The Mojave Air and Space Port’s “taxiway of dreams” — Taxiway B — will be extended with the help of a $1.05 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“These Airport Improvement Grants are investments in our country’s critical infrastructure,” said DOT Secretary Elaine Chao in a press release. “This grant is a down payment to ensure Mojave remains an economic engine as demand grows.”

The taxiway is so nicknamed because it was built without having a specific tenant signed up. Taxiway B serves the FAITH hangar, which is home to Virgin Galactic, The Spaceship Company and their two vehicles, SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo.

A sister company, Virgin Orbit, plans to operate its Boeing 747 out of Mojave. The aircraft, which is named Cosmic Girl, will air launch satellites over the Pacific Ocean with the LauncherOne booster.

The funding to Mojave is part of $770.8 million in airport infrastructure grants announced on Friday. It is the third allotment of a total of $3.18 billion allocated under the DOT’s Airport Improvement Program.

SpaceShipTwo Hit Nearly Mach 2.5 in Successful Flight Test

SpaceShipTwo Unity during third flight test. (Credit: MarsScientific.com & Trumbull Studios)

MOJAVE, Calif. (Virgin Galactic PR) — Virgin Galactic test pilots broke Mach 2 this morning, as VSS Unity took her third rocket-powered supersonic outing in less than four months. After a clean release from carrier aircraft VMS Eve at 46,500 ft, pilots Dave Mackay and Mike “Sooch” Masucci lit the spaceship’s rocket motor, before pulling up into a near vertical climb and powering towards the black sky at 2.47 times the speed of sound.

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Southern Road to Spaceport America Nearly Completed

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

The long-awaited southern road that will cut travel time between Las Cruces and Spaceport America is nearing completion, the Las Cruces Sun-News reports.

Finally, after years of delays and uncertainties, the roughly 24-mile-long road is paved. Some details remain in the overall project, which Doña Ana County officials expect to be completed in August.

Doña Ana County Manager Fernando Macias said he drove the road on July 9 to see how it looked.

“From my perspective, it’s 98 percent complete,” he said. “Maybe a little bit of touch-ups (are needed) as we go along because we haven’t technically accepted the road or accepted the finality of the project.”

For years, there’s been a dirt road along the southern route, which stretches from the Upham Exit of Interstate 25 to the spaceport. But it was in poor condition, and drivers, especially those in passenger cars, found it impassable. Even people driving trucks reported frequent flat tires.

Currently, motorists must drive north of the spaceport on I-25 to Truth or Consequences and then double back on local roads to reach the spaceport.

The $14 million project is being paid for by the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, which runs Spaceport America. The state of New Mexico has spent about $225 million on the spaceport project, whose anchor tenant is Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic continues to test SpaceShipTwo Unity at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The ship is designed to carry six passengers and two pilots on suborbital flights.

 

Cornwall Expects Big — Maybe Too Big — Things From Newquay Spaceport

There’s some news from Cornwall on the spaceport front:

Cornwall Council has admitted that it is ‘anticipating a positive announcement’ on the bid to have the UK’s first spaceport in Newquay bringing thousands of new jobs and an £1bn a year into the local economy.

Newquay is among eight UK sites vying to become the first spaceport in Europe as the Government aims to meet the growing interest in space tourism.

The Government is expected to announce the location of the spaceport at the Farnborough Air Show which starts on July 16.

If successful, horizontal rocket launches could take place from Newquay , which has one of the longest runways in the country, to see small size satellites put into orbit. The space sector could be worth more than £1 billion by 2030, which is more than 10 per cent of the current economy.

Editor’s Note:  It looks like somebody’s got spaceport fever. Also known as Richardson Syndrome, it is a very serious condition that leads people to do and say all sorts of crazy (and often expensive) things. The only cure for that is reviewing the history of commercial spaceports. Preferable with a couple of pints on hand, which you’ll need once you realize what you’ve gotten yourself into.

I’ve lived for six years near Mojave spaceport, which hasn’t seen a spaceflight in almost 14 years.  Small rocket launches aside, Spaceport America has stayed largely idle since they dedicated the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space way back in 2011. (You don’t need to spend $225 million to launch sounding rockets.) Midland’s spaceport dreams expired when XCOR and Orbital outfitters did. Burns Flat in Oklahoma never saw a launch. Florida’s Cecil Airport is still waiting for its first spaceflight.

Maybe things will be different in Cornwall. Maybe they’ll catch a wave. Maybe the timing is finally right. I don’t know. You never say never in this business.

It’s great that they’re willing to pursue this, but they need to manage expectations. And not go giving things away on sketchy promises. One thing that helps is Newquay won’t be dependent on its space business. It’s not like they’re building a spaceport in suburban nowhere and waiting on something that is always 12 to 18 months away.