Branson Back to Making Predictions About SpaceShipTwo’s Schedule

Richard Branson and George Whitesides gave out at SpaceShipTwo after it came to a stop. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Now that the second SpaceShipTwo Unity has five glide flights under its belt, the “we’ll fly when we’re ready, we don’t make predictions” era appears to be officially over at Virgin Galactic.

“I certainly would be very disappointed if I don’t go up next year. And I would hope it’s earlier than later in the year,” Richard Branson told British GQ. “The programme says that we should be [testing] in space by December, as long as we don’t have any setbacks between now and then.”

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NASA Will Take 2 Years to Complete Investigation into 2015 Falcon 9 Failure

Dragon capsule separated from Falcon 9 launch vehicle.
Dragon capsule separated from Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

NASA’s investigation into the Falcon 9 launch failure that destroyed a Dragon cargo ship in June 2015 keeps getting more and more interesting.

I checked in again last week with the space agency about when it would be releasing a public report on the 18-month old accident. This is what a NASA spokesperson told me (emphasis mine):

NASA’s final report on the SpaceX CRS-7 mishap is still in work. While the report is important in providing NASA historical data of the mishap, the accident involved a version of the Falcon 9 rocket that is no longer in use. Furthermore, while the public summary itself may only be a few pages, the complete report is expected to exceed several hundred pages of highly detailed and technical information restricted by U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations and company-sensitive proprietary information. As a result, NASA anticipates its internal report and public summary will be finalized in the summer 2017.

That is a rather long time, even for a sometimes pokey government agency investigating the failure of a booster variant no longer in use.
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A Halloween Nightmare in Mojave

Alsbury_Plaque
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.

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IG Criticizes NASA’s Decision to Allow SpaceX, Orbital ATK to Conduct Own Accident Investigations

Dragon capsule separated from Falcon 9 launch vehicle.
Dragon capsule separated from Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA’s Inspector General (OIG) has criticized the agency’s practice of allowing SpaceX and Orbital ATK to lead investigations into their own launch failures involving commercial cargo ships, citing a lack of independence and the potential for serious conflicts of interest.

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So Exactly How Safe Will SpaceShipTwo Be?

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

Part 5 of 6

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

With the recent roll out of VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic marked a symbolic milestone in its recovery from the October 2014 accident that destroyed the first SpaceShipTwo and killed pilot Mike Alsbury.

Two questions loomed large over the celebrity-studded event. When will it fly? And how safe will it be when it does?

Company officials gave no timeline on the first question. Their answers about SpaceShipTwo’s safety differed significantly from previous claims they made over the last 11.5 years.

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Updated Status of NTSB Recommendations to FAA AST

SpaceShipTwo's right boom. (Credit: NTSB)
SpaceShipTwo’s right boom. (Credit: NTSB)

Here is  the current status of the 10 recommendations the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) made as part of its investigation of the SpaceShipTwo crash in October 2014.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) submitted responses to eight recommendations in October. The NTSB responded to the FAA’s responses in January. The safety board found FAA’s responses to seven of the recommendations to be acceptable. albeit it has serious concerns on one of them. NTSB found one of FAA’s responses unacceptable.

The NTSB made two recommendations to the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. The safety board’s website says CSF has not responded to the recommendations yet.

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NTSB, FAA Spar Over Scope of License & Permit Evaluations

ntsb_logoBy Douglas Messsier
Managing Editor

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is concerned that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) might not be sufficiently addressing weaknesses in how it evaluates experimental permit and license applications submitted by commercial space companies.

The concerns involve the FAA’s response to one of eight recommendations the NTSB made in its final report on the crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo in October 2014. NTSB investigators found shortcomings in the FAA’s evaluation and issuance of the experimental permit and a waiver under which flight tests of Sir Richard Branson’s suborbital space tourism vehicle were conducted.

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FAA AST Rejects NTSB Safety Inspection Recommendation

SpaceShipTwo's right boom. (Credit: NTSB)
SpaceShipTwo’s right boom. (Credit: NTSB)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA AST) has rejected a recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on how to improve the safety inspection process for commercial space systems.

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Character, Candor & Competence: Lessons From the SpaceShipTwo Crash

SpaceShipTwo right boom wreckage. (Credit: NTSB)
SpaceShipTwo right boom wreckage. (Credit: NTSB)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

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.

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FAA AST Responds to NTSB Recommendations in SpaceShipTwo Accident Report

SpaceShipTwo's right boom. (Credit: NTSB)
SpaceShipTwo’s right boom. (Credit: NTSB)

The Federal Aviation Administration Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA AST) has submitted formal responses to the eight recommendations the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) made in its report on the loss of SpaceShipTwo in October 2014.

All the responses are dated Oct. 30, 2015 — one day short of the one year anniversary of the crash. The responses are all identified as being from FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta.

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Shock, Tears & Spin: The Aftermath of the SpaceShipTwo Crash

SpaceShipTwo's right boom. (Credit: NTSB)
SpaceShipTwo’s right boom. (Credit: NTSB)

Part 5 in a Series

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.

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Pete Siebold’s Harrowing Descent

SpaceShipTwo breaks up in flight. (Credit: Brandon Wood/NTSB)
SpaceShipTwo breaks up in flight. At the upper left, the main fuselage without its tail booms continues to vent nitrous oxide while in an inverted flat spin. The crew cabin is tumbling in the lower right of the photo. (Credit: Brandon Wood/NTSB)

Part 4 in a Series

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

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–

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The Breakup of SpaceShipTwo Frame by Frame From the Tail Boom

Engine start on SpaceShipTwo.(Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)
Engine start on SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)

Part 3.2 in a Series

The following sequence is extracted from a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) document about the loss of SpaceShipTwo last October. The images show the breakup of the vehicle from a camera on one of the tail booms. The premature unlocking of the feather mechanism resulted in aerodynamic pressures deploying the movable tail booms during powered ascent.

NTSB experts did the annotation on the photos and the narrative that accompanies the images. The sequence spans 3 seconds.

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A Good Light, Then a Fatal Mistake

WhiteKnightTwo takes off carrying SpaceShipTwo on its final flight. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
WhiteKnightTwo takes off carrying SpaceShipTwo on its final flight. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Part 3 in a Series

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

With World War II-era structures still dotting its flight line and industrial park, the Mojave Air and Space Port sometimes reminds visitors of the training base where Marine Corps fighter pilots learned to fly 70 years earlier. Just beyond the airport’s three runways is a giant boneyard full of scrapped 747s and other aircraft that would not look all that out of place to a time traveler who ventured forward from 30 or 40 years ago.

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SpaceShipTwo Pilots Faced Extremely High Work Loads

Pre-sunrise checks on WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo on the runway at the Mojave Air and Spaceport. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Pre-sunrise checks on WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo on the runway at the Mojave Air and Spaceport before powered flight 3. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Part 2 in a Series

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The Mojave Air and Spaceport sits on 3,300 acres of California’s High Desert about 100 miles north of Los Angeles. Since it opened in 1935, the facility had seen multiple uses – rural airfield for the mining industry, World War II Marines Corps training base, U.S. Navy air station and general aviation airport.

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