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.

(more…)

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).

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.
(more…)











Branson’s Autobiography: After SpaceShipTwo’s Loss the Blame Game Began

Nitrous oxide and cabin atmosphere vent from the disintegrating SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: MARS Scientific/NTSB)

Part 3 of 3

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Finding My Virginity: The New Autobiography
Richard Branson
Portfolio
Oct. 10, 2017
482 pages

On the morning of Oct. 31, 2014, a nightmarish vision that had haunted me for months became a real-life disaster in the skies over the Mojave Desert. SpaceShipTwo dropped from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship, lit its engine and appeared to explode. Pieces of the space plane then began to rain down all over the desert.

The motor had exploded. Or the nitrous oxide tank had burst. At least that’s what I and two photographers – whose pictures of the accident would soon be seen around the world – thought had occurred as we watched the flight from Jawbone Station about 20 miles north of Mojave.

We really believed we had seen and heard a blast nine miles overhead, the photos appeared to show one, and it was the most plausible explanation at the time.

We were wrong. More than two days after the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) revealed that co-pilot Mike Alsbury had prematurely unlocked SpaceShipTwo’s feather system during powered ascent. The ship hadn’t blown up, it had broken up as the twin tail booms reconfigured the vehicle with the engine still burning at full thrust.
(more…)











Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic Eye Human Spaceflights in 2018

New Shepard booster fires its engine just over the landing pad. (Credit: Blue Origin)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

While Boeing and SpaceX move toward flying astronauts to the International Space Station this year, there are two other companies working on restoring the ability to launch people into space from U.S. soil.

Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic aren’t attempting anything as ambitious as orbital flight. Their aim is to fly short suborbital hops that will give tourists and scientists several minutes of microgravity to float around and conduct experiments in.

(more…)











A Niche in Time: First Flight

Richard Branson addresses the crowd before SpaceShipTwo’s glide flight. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Part 5 of 5

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The morning of Dec. 3, 2016, began like so many others in Mojave. The first rays of dawn gave way to a brilliant sunrise that revealed a cloudless, clear blue sky over California’s High Desert.

This was hardly newsworthy. For most of the year, Mojave doesn’t really have weather, just temperatures and wind speeds. It had been literally freezing overnight; the mercury was at a nippy 28º F (-2.2º C) at 4 a.m. As for Mojave’s famous winds – an enemy of roofs, trees and big rigs, but the lifeblood of thousands of wind turbines that cover the landscape west of town – there really weren’t any. It was basically a flat calm.

In other words, it was a perfect day to fly.

(more…)











A Niche in Time: One Chute

SpaceShipTwo after being released for its final flight on March 31, 2014. (Credit: Virgin Galactic/NTSB)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Pete Siebold and Mike Alsbury heard the sound of hooks disengaging and felt a sharp jolt as SpaceShipTwo was released from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship. Relieved of a giant weight, WhiteKnightTwo shot upward as the spacecraft plunged toward the desert floor.

“Fire,” Siebold said as the shadow of one of WhiteKnightTwo’s wings passed across the cabin.

“Arm,” Alsbury responded. “Fire.”

The pilots were pushed back into their seats as SpaceShipTwo’s nylon-nitrous oxide hybrid engine ignited behind them, sending the ship soaring skyward on a pillar of flames.

(more…)











Branson Still Doesn’t Really Understand Why SpaceShipTwo Crashed

SpaceShipTwo breaks up. (Credit: NTSB)

Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson was interviewed for the Jan. 30 edition of NPR’s “How I Built This” podcast. Beginning at 25:44, there’s a brief discussion of the October 2014 crash that destroyed the first SpaceShipTwo and killed co-pilot Mike Alsbury.

Branson recalls that for the first 12 hours after the accident he wasn’t sure if the SpaceShipTwo program would continue. “But, once we realized it was a pilot error and not a technical error, I was able to tell all the engineers it was nothing to do with them. And that the basic craft was sound.”

Alas, most of this explanation is wrong.

(more…)











SpaceShipTwo Drop Test Set for Tuesday

SpaceShipTwo glides toward a landing with its chase plane close behind at lower right. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
SpaceShipTwo glides toward a landing with its chase plane close behind at lower right. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Virgin Galactic plans to conduct the first glide test of the second SpaceShipTwo on Tuesday, Nov. 1. It will be the first flight of the spaceship and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft since a captive carry test on Sept. 8.

The flight, which will take place from the Mojave Air and Space Port, will come two years and 1 day after the first SpaceShipTwo broke up during a powered test flight, killing Scaled Composites pilot Mike Alsbury and injuring pilot Pete Siebold.

Virgin Galactic pilot C.J. Sturckow confirmed the date of the flight test during an event on Saturday at the Explorers Club in New York City, according to SpaceNews reporter Jeff Foust.

Sturckow told attendees Virgin Galactic plans “‘spot check’ the glide flight envelope of SS2 and move into powered flight tests in early 2017,” according to a tweet posted by Foust.











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.

(more…)











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.

(more…)











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–

(more…)











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.

(more…)











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.

(more…)











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.

(more…)