The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be: The Triumph and Failure of the Ansari X Prize

WhiteKnight with SpaceShipOne on the taxiway prior to the first commercial spaceflight. The authori is at right holding up the video camera. (Credit: John Criswick)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Sixteen years ago today, I awoke very early and joined about 25,000 people at a newly-designated spaceport in the Mojave Desert to watch history in the making.

On that bright sunny June 21, Mike Melvill became the first person to fly to space on a privately-built vehicle by piloting SpaceShipOne to just above the Karman line at 100 km.

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Blast From the Past: Suborbital Human Spaceflights by March 2009

March 2007

Virgin Galactic Founder predicts SpaceShipTwo would be ready to fly in 12 months. A year after that — March 2009 — the vehicle would begin commercial suborbital space flights.

The reality is that in 2007 they didn’t have an engine capable of firing for the one minute needed to send SpaceShipTwo above 50 miles. They weren’t even close to having one. It would take another 7.5 years to develop one they would even risk firing for more than 20 seconds in flight.

SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise was destroyed on Oct. 31, 2014 during the flight during which they were supposed to test that engine. That accident set the program back by another five years.

Alsbury’s Name Added to Space Mirror Memorial

Scaled Composites pilot Mike Alsbury died in the break up of SpaceShipTwo Enterprise on Oct. 31, 2014. The memorial at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center includes pilots who died during spaceflight and those in training for them.

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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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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Stratolaunch is Back in Business Under Unknown Ownership

Stratolaunch flies over Mojave. (Credit: Stratolaunch)

MOJAVE, Calif. (Stratolaunch PR) — Stratolaunch LLC has transitioned ownership and is continuing regular operations.  Our near-term launch vehicle development strategy focuses on providing customizable, reusable, and affordable rocket-powered testbed vehicles and associated flight services. 

As we continue on our mission, Stratolaunch will bring the carrier aircraft test and operations program fully in-house.  We thank Vulcan Inc and Scaled Composites for turning an ambitious idea into a flight-proven aircraft.

For more information, please visit www.stratolaunch.com/news-and-features. Please also follow @Stratolaunch on Twitter for the latest updates.

UPDATE: And there’s this press release from Scaled Composites:

Scaled is pleased to announce the transfer of the Stratolaunch Aircraft to Stratolaunch Corporation. Scaled was contracted in 2011 by Stratolaunch to design, build, and test the world’s largest aircraft by wingspan. Having accomplished these goals successfully, the Scaled team has transitioned the vehicle and associated knowledge to the Stratolaunch team. Scaled wishes Stratolaunch success as it continues work towards commercial operation of its launch system.

Test Pilot Wins Kincheloe Award for Stratolaunch Maiden Flight

Stratolaunch takes off. (Credit: Stratolaunch)

MOJAVE, Calif. (Scaled Composites PR) — During the annual Society of Experimental Test Pilots symposium this past weekend, test pilot Evan “Ivan” Thomas was awarded the Kincheloe award for the execution of the initial test program and first flight of the Scaled Model 351, Stratolaunch.

In addition, the Stratolaunch first flight crew – Evan “Ivan” Thomas, Chris “Duff” Guarente, and Jake Riley – were awarded the Tenhoff award or the most outstanding technical paper that was presented during the event.

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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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It’s Dead, Jim! ISRO Gives Up on Lunar Lander, Rover

Chandrayaan2 Vikram lander (Credit: ISRO)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Well, it’s not the famous winter of Game of Thrones, but the 14-day lunar night has arrived where India’s Vikram lander and Pragyan rover made what IRSO officials have called a “hard landing” two weeks ago with no communication between them and ground controllers.

Since neither vehicle was designed to survive the frigid temperatures of the lunar night, the Indian space agency has called it a day in a rather bare bones announcement.

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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).

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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Video of Stratolaunch’s Maiden Flight

Video Caption: In partnership with Scaled Composites, Stratolaunch successfully completed the first flight of the Stratolaunch aircraft. As part of this initial flight of the world’s largest aircraft, the pilots evaluated aircraft performance and handling qualities of the all-composite, dual-fuselage design.

The airplane took off at 0658 PDT on April 13, 2019, from the Mojave Air & Space Port, and flew for 2.5 hours, achieving a maximum speed of 189 miles per hour and reaching altitudes of up to 17,000 feet. The plane landed safely amid cheers from the team that designed and built the plane.











Scaled Composites Announces Cory Bird as Company President

Cory Bird

MOJAVE, Calif. (Scaled Composites PR) — Scaled Composites has announced Cory Bird as the company’s new president. Scaled Composites is an industry leader with broad experience in vehicle design, tooling, and manufacturing; specialty composite structure design, analysis and fabrication; and developmental flight test.

Cory has over 33 years of experience at Scaled Composites, holding multiple positions, including project engineer, program manager, Stratolaunch chief engineer, vice president/general manager and executive vice president/chief technical officer.

Over the course of his career, Cory has held increasing roles of responsibility directly supporting design, development and execution of over 45 prototype vehicles including milestone aircraft like SpaceShipOne, WhiteKnightOne, and GlobalFlyer.

About Scaled Composites

Scaled Composites is a specialty aerospace and composites development company offering design, build, and test capabilities. Founded by Burt Rutan in 1982 and located in Mojave, CA, Scaled has averaged one first flight of a unique, new airplane per year.

Our employees come from a diverse background of talents, experience, and interests. This unique combination of individuals helps promote an innovative and creative atmosphere. Scaled Composites offers the opportunity to pursue career and personal interests in a manner that can be found nowhere else by following one simple rule: have fun. www.scaled.com

Scaled Composites is under the management of Allied Holdings, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Northrop Grumman Corporation.

Editor’s Note: For those keeping score at home, the previous president was Ben Diachun.











Virgin Galactic Pilots Join 80.46-Kilometer (50-Mile) Club

Richard Branson with the pilots of SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Galactic pilots Mark “Forger” Stucky and Frederick “C.J.” Sturckow, who were awarded civilian astronaut wings last week, are among 18 pilots who have flown suborbital flights.

The two pilots flew SpaceShipTwo Unity to an altitude of 51.4 miles (82.72 km) on Dec. 13, 2018. That accomplishment qualified them for civilian astronaut wings using an American definition that places the boundary of space at 50 miles (80.46 km).

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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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