The Future Just Ain’t What It Used To Be: Space Tourism Edition

White Knight taxis with SpaceShipOne on June 21, 2004. (Credit: John Criswick)

On this date in 2004, Mike Melvill lit the candle on SpaceShipOne as soared into history as the first astronaut to fly a privately-built spacecraft to space.

Fourteen years. It seems like only a lifetime ago.

I was on the flight line that day (I’m the guy with the video camera) not far from where I write this today.  The excitement and optimism of that day — that feeling that a new era of spaceflight would soon be upon us — was palpable. The future was within our grasp.

The last 14 years have been a lot like the movie, “Groundhog Day.” Not in the sense of the same day being repeated endlessly, but the same old promises being made over and over. And still, space tourism remains just out of our grasp.

What went wrong? It’s a question I’ve pondered as I’ve watched the setbacks and the tragedies unfold here in Mojave. The answer is complex, but in its simplest form it can be summed up as follows:

Although SpaceShipOne winning the Ansari X Prize was an enormously inspiring event, it produced immature and poorly understood technology and bred a dangerous overconfidence in its builders that contributed to two fatal accidents. Government oversight regulations ignored safety lessons learned in decades of human spaceflight.

There are no shortcuts in this business. And the moment you think you’ve got it all figured out is when you need to be most on guard. These are lessons we seem doomed to learn anew over and over again.

As I said, the truth is more complicated. Below are some stories I’ve written over the years exploring what went wrong.

Stories

Finding My Virginity Book Review (Jan. 8-10, 2018)

A Niche in Time Series (Sept. 25 – Oct. 3, 2017)

Pew Poll Show Strong Support for U.S. Space Leadership, Little for Returning Astronauts to Moon

The newly-expanded Expedition 54 crew gathers in the Zvezda service module for ceremonila congratulations from family and mission officials. (Credit: NASA TV)

A new poll by the Pew Research Center showed strong support for maintaining U.S. leadership in space, but little interest in returning astronauts to the moon.

“Roughly seven-in-ten Americans (72%) say it is essential for the U.S. to continue to be a world leader in space exploration, and eight-in-ten (80%) say the space station has been a good investment for the country,” the survey found.

However, only 13 percent felt that sending astronauts back to the moon should be a top NASA priority. Mars came in slightly higher at 18 percent.

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Pictures from SpaceShipTwo Unity’s Powered Flight Test

SpaceShiptwo Unity soars skyward after being dropped from WhiteKnightTwo on May 26, 2018. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

A picture of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo’s powered flight from the great Ken Brown. Below is my video of the takeoff from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

I was using a new handheld camera so please excuse the shakiness of the video. Below is a picture that Ken snapped of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo as they flew overhead.

WhiteKnightTwo carries SpaceShipTwo Unity to its second powered flight. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Had a bit of a malfunction with the camera, so I didn’t get any video of the actual flight. Sorry about that. Given the camera and the distance involved, I’m not sure I would have picked up that much. But, I’ll try again next time.

New Virgin Galactic Video

Video Caption: The creation of a hybrid rocket motor system for SpaceShipTwo represented a significant engineering challenge. We are particularly proud that we designed and now test and manufacture this world class motor in house. Come meet the team behind the burn…the Rocket Guys.

Blue Origin Conducts Successful New Shepard Flight Test

This was the eighth launch of the New Shepard system, and the second one with paid experiments aboard. An instrumented crash test dummy named Mannequin Skywalker was aboard for the second time.

The 10-minute flight was apparently nominal. The booster landed successfully and the capsule touched down under three parachutes. The capsule reached an apogee of 347,485 ft (106 km or 65.86 miles), which was a new record for the company but slightly below the 350,000 ft target altitude. (Update: Jeff Bezos tweeted that apogee was actually 351,000 ft, which is the planned operational altitude for future flights.)

Blue Origin officials have said they plan additional flight tests this year. It is possible they will fly test subjects on the vehicle by the end of 2018.

Orion Span Announces Plan for Space Hotel

Aurora station (Credit: Orion Span)

HOUSTON (Orion Span PR) – The first-ever luxury space hotel was introduced today during the Space 2.0 Summit in San Jose, California. Named after the magical light phenomenon that illuminates the Earth’s polar skies, Aurora Station (pictured right) is being developed by Orion Span and the company’s team of space industry veterans, who have over 140 years of human space experience.

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Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Powered Flight Set for Thursday Morning

SpaceShipTwo flies under power for the third time in January 2014. (Credit: Ken Brown)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The preliminaries are over. And now the moment of truth has arrived for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Almost 3.5 years after SpaceShipTwo Enterprise broke up during a flight test on Halloween 2014, the company is scheduled to conduct the first powered flight of SpaceShipTwo Unity later this morning from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The test was preceded by seven glide flights.

I’ll be providing live updates on the flight on Twitter @spacecom.

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Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Video

Video Caption: Successful Spaceflight Operations are a result of seamless teamwork in the air, on the ground, and in between. Our Mojave-based Mission Control team measures up to the best in the world. In this video let us take you behind the doors (and screens!) of our control room in the second episode of our Overview Series.

Mojave Gets a Royal Visit

Mojave control tower at sunset. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Mojave is a quiet little town that people don’t visit so much as stop at just long enough for gas, food or a bathroom break. It seems like the only folks who stay overnight have business at the spaceport or are long-haul truckers who are not here for the town’s non-existent nightlife.

So, the arrival of Richard Branson’s private jet — the one with the Virgin Galactic eye on the tail — on Saturday afternoon was quite the surprise. Normally he’s here to watch a test flight of SpaceShipTwo, but there was no sign that one would take place over the long Easter weekend.

The following day, the jet was still parked outside Virgin’s FAITH facility, but it was surrounded by a dozen or more SUVs right there on the ramp. Something was going on over there, but it was hard to know what.

On Monday, we got an answer. The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, was here to see his nation’s latest investment. Last fall, Saudi Arabia signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to invest $1 billion with an option for $480 million more in Branson’s three space companies — Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit and The Spaceship Company.

Photographs of the visit (here and here) show that Saudi Arabia’s symbols now adorn Virgin’s vehicles. The kingdom’s official seal can be seen on SpaceShipTwo’s nose and a model of a hyperloop vehicle for Virgin Hyperloop One. The logo of Vision 2030 — Saudi Arabia’s ambitious effort to diversify its economy away from oil — can be seen on the side of the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.

There was also the following information from a Saudi news report:

And for the first time, Virgin Galactic unveiled new and unique aircraft fuel compartments, in addition to a presentation on spacecraft that will enter commercial services.

The officials reviewed the areas of existing investment partnership, ways of developing them especially in space services, opportunities for deepening cooperation in modern technologies through research, manufacturing, and training Saudi youths, and transforming the Kingdom from a consumer to a producer of technology.

I’m sure we’ll get more information from Virgin soon.

Branson Talks About Space Tourism, Hotels Around the Moon

Video Caption: Billionaire Richard Branson has set up Virgin Galactic as part of his dream to conquer the final frontier. But it’s also a bet that could land him at the forefront of a new business: space tourism.

From the Series: Billionaire Space Club http://bit.ly/2IcWcXA

Editor’s Note: It’s sad the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space remains empty 6.5 years after they dedicated the structure.

House Science Committee Approves Commercial Space Support Vehicle Act

The second SpaceShipTwo is carried aloft by WhiteKnightTwo on its first captive carry flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

The House Science Committee has approved a bill that would allow Virgin Galactic and other companies to obtain FAA licenses and experimental permits to use space support vehicles for training and research.

“Companies would like to utilize space support vehicles to train crews and spaceflight participants by exposing them to the physiological effects encountered in spaceflight or conduct research in reduced gravity environments,” said Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), who introduced the measure.

“This legislation creates a foundation for more companies to engage in human space flight activities and support commercial space operations. I would like to thank Rep. Al Lawson, Chairman Lamar Smith and Subcommittee Chairman Brian Babin for their support of this important, bipartisan legislation,” Posey added.

Virgin Galactic would like to use the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft that launches SpaceShipTwo for training and research purposes. The legislation would also affect the Stratolaunch air-launch system and Starfighters Aerospace, which wants to train people in F-104 aircraft.

“The Commercial Space Support Vehicle Act provides the appropriate regulatory approach – by authorizing the secretary of transportation to develop the regulations by March 1, 2019, allowing licensed space support flights,” Posey said.

New Mexico Pours $17 Million More into Spaceport America

Sunset at the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space” terminal hangar facility at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

The New Mexico Legislature was generous to Spaceport America this year, providing nearly $17 million to pay for operating expenses and a series of upgrades designed to allow the struggling facility to attract more tenants.

The funding includes $10 million for a new satellite testing and development hangar, $5 million for a fuel farm, $500,000 for a launch vehicle payload integration facility, and $500,000 to repair and upgrade “electrical, fire suppression, water, sewer, security, mission control, heating, ventilation and air conditioning and building systems.”

The appropriation for the new hangar is contingent on the New Mexico Spaceport Authority contracting with a tenant that specializes in advanced aerospace products and technologies.

The spaceport also received $975,900 from the state’s general fund to fund its operations.

Spaceport America has struggled due to more than a decades of delays that have plagued anchor tenant Virgin Galactic. Richard Branson’s suborbital space tourism company is continuing to test SpaceShipTwo Unity at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The company has not set a date for the start of commercial operations in New Mexico.

 

Budget Bill Contains $10 Million for New Hangar at Spaceport America

The Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space building with a security fence around it. (Credit: Alex Heard)

The New Mexico House Appropriations Committee has approved a spending plan for the state that includes $10 million for the construction of a new hangar at Spaceport America.

The funding is “for the planning and construction of an aerospace satellite testing and development hangar,” the bill reads. “The appropriation is contingent on the New Mexico spaceport authority contracting with a vendor specializing in advanced aerospace products and technologies to use the hangar.”

Construction of the spaceport near Truth or Consequences has already cost taxpayers about $225 million. The spaceport was originally built for anchor tenant Virgin Galactic, which has yet to begin flying suborbital space tourism flights from the southern New Mexico facility.

Virgin Galactic is currently testing its second SpaceShipTwo, Unity, at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Richard Branson’s space company expects to conduct several powered flight tests at Mojave before moving test operations to Spaceport America later this year.

Coalition Seeks Another $20 Million in Public Funding for Spaceport America

Sunset at the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space” terminal hangar facility at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

With the New Mexico Legislature back in session in Sante Fe, the Dona Ana County Legislative Coalition is seeking more than $20 million for improvements to Spaceport America.

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