A Look Back at Space Tourism Version 1.0 as New Gaggle of Millionauts Prepares to Fly

The first space tourist, Dennis Tito, poses with Soyuz TM-32 crew mates Talgat Musabayev, and Yuri Baturin in 2001. (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

For eight years, they thundered aloft in cramped Russian spacecraft from a former Soviet spaceport in Kazakhstan, battling bureaucracy and gravity to blaze a trail across the heavens and redefine what it meant to be a space traveler. No longer would access to orbit be limited to highly trained astronauts chosen on merit and working on behalf of their nations; instead, space would be open to any sufficiently healthy people with enough money and moxie to qualify.

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IT’S ALIVE! Stratolaunch’s Roc Aircraft Flies for First Time in 2 Years

Stratolaunch overhead (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Flight signals revival of giant airplane, which will focus on launching hypersonic test vehicles.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

For the first time in 2 years 16 days, Stratolaunch’s massive Roc aircraft roared down the runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California and soared into in clear blue sky on only its second ever flight test.

Roc took off at 7:31 a.m. PDT time, trailing a giant cloud of dust stirred up by its six jet engines and giant 385-ft long wings that hung out over the desert scrub brush. The aircraft flew over the Mojave Desert for more than three hours as a crowd that had gathered for takeoff watched.

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Stratolaunch Took to Air Two Years Ago

Stratolaunch takes off. (Credit: Stratolaunch)

Two years ago today, on April 13, 2019, Stratolaunch’s enormous dual fuselage aircraft with a 385-ft wingspan took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port trailing a cloud of dust. It flew over the Mojave Desert for 2 hours 29 minutes before landing back on runway 12-30.

The plane was the dream child of Scaled Composites’ founder Burt Rutan and funded by the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen. It was designed to air launch satellites using a medium-size rocket.

Allen didn’t live to see the first, and thus far, only flight test of the aircraft. He passed away the previous October from non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Stratolaunch flies (Credit: Stratolaunch)

His sister, Jody, was the executor of Allen’s estimated $20 billion estate. She decided to sell the company. The new owners are now preparing to use the aircraft to launch hypersonic test vehicles.

The giant aircraft was out on Runway 12-30 for several days last week. It was likely conducting some taxi tests. It is not clear when it will take to the skies again.

Original Firefly Shareholders Sue Firefly’s Markusic, Polyakov Alleging Fraud

Tom Markusic

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

A group of original shareholders in the defunct Firefly Space Systems have accused co-founder and CEO Tom Markusic of fraudulently conspiring with Ukrainian billionaire Maxym Polyakov to force the rocket company into bankruptcy in 2017 and reconstitute it under a nearly identical name without giving them any stake in the new venture.

Markusic “betrayed the trust of his original co-founders and investors and committed fraud to cut them out of his aerospace company. Instead of managing the operations of the Original Firefly, a revolutionary rocket company with endless potential, Markusic schemed with…Maxym Polyakov…to rob Plaintiffs of their investments and form a new company called Firefly Aerospace, Inc. (the ‘New Firefly’),” the plaintiffs said in a lawsuit.

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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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15 Years Ago Today….

Mike Melvill stands atop SpaceShipOne after a suborbital flight on Sept. 29, 2004. (Credit: RenegadeAven)

Fifteen years ago today on Sept. 29, 2004, Mike Melvill lit SpaceShipOne’s hybrid engine in the skies over the Mojave Desert and flew to an altitude of 102.93 km (337,697 ft) before gliding back to a landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

It was Melvill’s second space flight in the rocket plane that Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites built. And it was the first of two flights required for to win the $10 Ansari X Prize for the first privately-built crewed spacecraft to reach space twice within two weeks.

Melvill didn’t have an entirely smooth flight. The spacecraft rolled 29 times during ascent before he was able to bring the ship under control.

Melvill admitted in 2014 there was an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that he would shut off the engine if the vehicle started rolling. But, he and Rutan were not sure it was a good idea to shut off the engine.

Melvill added that as a shareholder in Scaled Composites, he didn’t want to risk not winning the $10 million prize, which was set to expire in three months at the end of 2004.

Five days after Melvill’s hair-raising flight, Brian Binnie piloted SpaceShipOne on a trouble-free flight tin win the Ansari X Prize. Binnie flew to 112.014 km (367,454 ft), breaking the X-15’s record of 107.96 km (354,200 ft) set in 1963.

It was SpaceShipOne’s final flight. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who spent $28 million backing Rutan’s entry in the competition, decided to retire the spacecraft. He accepted an offer to donate it to the Smithsonian Institution. SpaceShipOne hangs in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

Allen licensed the technology to Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Scaled Composites and Virgin embarked on building the much larger SpaceShipTwo vehicle to fly tourists into space. Commercial flights are scheduled to begin next year.

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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For Sale: The World’s Largest Airplane*

Stratolaunch takes off. (Credit: Stratolaunch)

As we previously reported, Stratolaunch is up for sale. Paul Allen’s sister Jody Allen, the executor of her brother’s estate, has no interest in continuing the development of the giant airplane, which is designed to air launch rockets.

CNBC reports on the eye popping price tag:

Holding company Vulcan is seeking to sell Stratolaunch for $400 million, people familiar with the matter told CNBC. Vulcan is the investment conglomerate of late billionaire Paul Allen, a Microsoft co-founder. Allen died last October following complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The hefty price tag includes ownership of the airplane as well as the intellectual property and facilities.

Stratolaunch is the world’s largest airplane by wingspan, which stretches 385 feet — longer than an American football field. The plane is powered by six jet engines salvaged from Boeing 747 aircraft.

Allen’s vision of a massive plane that can launch rockets from the air was at least partially fulfilled in April, when Stratolaunch flew for the first time after about eight years in development. Based at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, the giant airplane flew for more than two hours before landing after what was deemed a successful first flight.

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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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Potentially Historic Flights Loom in Mojave

View of SpaceShipTwo Unity from the tail boom. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

It looks as if things could get very busy here at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the coming weeks with a possible pair of historic milestone flights.

Sir Richard Branson has said he expects SpaceShipTwo Unity to make a flight into space before Christmas, which is just over two weeks away. Sources say a flight is highly likely barring technical or weather delays.

Parabolic Arc has also heard that Stratolaunch could attempt the historic first flight of its massive carrier aircraft before the new year.
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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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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.