FAA Examination of Blue Origin Safety Issues Likely to be Very Narrow

New Shepard launch (Credit: Blue Origin webcast)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has said it will examine safety issues about Blue Origin’s crewed suborbital New Shepard vehicle raised by a group of current and former employees in an open letter published on Thursday.

The announcement comes 11 days before four paying customers, one reported to be Star Trek star William Shatner, are scheduled to board New Shepard for a trip to space. While a federal safety review might sound reassuring to these ticket holders, what does it actually mean in practice?

Probably not much.

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“Test God” Out as Virgin Galactic’s Director of Flight Test

Well, one day you’re a “God,” the next day you’re on the unemployment line.

Such was fate of Mark Stucky, who was Virgin Galactic’s lead pilot and director of flight test. On Tuesday, he announced on his Linkedin page that he had left the position. When asked why, he replied,

“Departing a company not on my own timeline was a first for me.”

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As Virgin Galactic Crew Celebrated Second Suborbital Flight, Problems Loomed Behind the Scenes

Chief Pilot David Mackay celebrates a successful flight with champagne as Chief Astronaut Beth Moses looks on. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Newly arrived back on Earth after a quick visit to space, Virgin Galactic Chief Astronaut Beth Moses was effusive as she described the suborbital flight she had just taken aboard the company’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, VSS Unity.

“Richard, you’re going to love it!” she told Virgin Chairman Richard Branson, who had remotely monitored the Feb. 22, 2019 flight that had taken place over California’s Mojave Desert.

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Virgin Galactic Looks on the Bright Side After Launch Abort

WhiteKnightTwo takes off with SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity from Spaceport America in New Mexico. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

It was a flight 22 months in the making. But, when it came time for the rubber to meet the oxidizer, the whole thing suddenly flamed out.

The hybrid engine on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity failed to fire properly on Saturday, sending the suborbital rocket plane, pilots David Mackay and C.J. Sturckow and a load of NASA-sponsored experiments into a rapid descent and landing back at Spaceport America, instead of a graceful parabolic arc into suborbital space.

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Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo Conducts Flight Test on Eve of Earnings Call

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

One week before Virgin Galactic is expected to report another large quarterly loss, the company’s WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve took to the skies on Thursday over Spaceport America for the first time since June 25.

The flight was the first of four tests designed to pave the way for Virgin Galactic to begin commercial SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism flights with VSS Unity during the first quarter of next year.

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Virgin Galactic Begins End Game as SpaceShipTwo Unity Relocated to New Mexico

SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity arrives at Spaceport America aboard WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Four years after it was first rolled out, Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity left the Mojave Air and Space Port in California on Thursday for its new home at in New Mexico, where it will undergo final flight testing and preparation for commercial suborbital space flights.

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Five Years Ago SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise Crashed in the Mojave Desert

The spot where part of SpaceShipTwo’s cockpit crashed with the body of Mike Alsbury. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Five years ago today, SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise broke up over the Mojave Desert during a flight test. Co-pilot Mike Alsbury died and pilot Pete Siebold was seriously injured.

The crash ended Virgin Galactic’s effort to begin commercial crewed suborbital spaceflights in the first quarter of 2015. Those flights are not forecast to begin in June 2020 — five years later than planned.

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Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Goes Public With Extravagant Promises to Keep

Richard Branson wears the SpaceShipTwo flight suit. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

After 15 years of making extravagant but unkept promises to fly more than 600 “future astronauts” to space, Richard Branson must now please an entirely new group of people who are usually much shorter on patience: shareholders.

Following the completion last week of a merger with Social Capital Hedosophia (SCH), the British billionaire’s Virgin Galactic suborbital “space line” will begin trading under its own name on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on Monday.

Going public now is an unusual move for a space tourism company that hasn’t flown a singlet tourist to space since Branson announced the SpaceShipTwo program in 2004. Some might see it has putting the cart before the horse.

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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.

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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.
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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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