Virgin Orbit Loses 35 OneWeb Launches, Sues Over Termination Fee

Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl 747 performs its first captive carry of LauncherOne. (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

When the contract was announced in June 2015, it seemed like a blockbuster deal:  satellite Internet provider OneWeb had placed an order for 39 launches with options for 100 more for Virgin Galactic’s (now Virgin Orbit’s) LauncherOne.

What made the order extraordinary was not just the large number of launches, but the fact that the rocket really didn’t even exist yet. (The fact that Richard Branson’s Virgin Group was an investor in OneWeb probably helped.)

Four years later, the blockbuster deal is a bust. According to a lawsuit filed this week by Virgin Orbit, OneWeb last year canceled 35 of the 39 planned launches., slicing most of the value from the $234 million deal.

SpaceNews reports that Virgin Orbit orbit is suing for $46.32 million it claims OneWeb owes it from a $70 million contract termination fee.

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NASA Opens Up International Space Station to Private Astronauts

Space tourist Guy Laliberte (front, far right) aboard the International Space Station.
Guy Laliberte (first row, far right) aboard the International Space Station.

WASHINGTON, DC (NASA PR) — As part of NASA’s mission to stimulate a low-Earth orbit (LEO) economy, NASA is enabling up to two short-duration private astronaut missions per year to the International Space Station beginning as early as 2020.

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Richard Branson Wants to Fly on SpaceShipTwo on Anniversary of Apollo 11 Moon Landing

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

Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson says he wants to fly to space aboard SpaceShipTwo as America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, Agence France Presse (AFP) reports.

“My wish is to go up on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, that’s what we’re working on,” the head of the Virgin group said on the sidelines of an event to honor Virgin Galactic at the Air and Space Museum in Washington.

Whether a SpaceShipTwo flight on the anniversary of the moon landing will be seen as a fitting tribute to America’s greatest achievement in space or merely a giant PR distraction is uncertain.

Whether they will be able to make that date is equally unclear. SpaceShipTwo Unity is still undergoing flight tests at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. (Branson told AFP the next flight is set for Feb. 20, weather permitting.) And practically all of his previous predictions for the start of commercial flights have been proven wrong over the past 14.5 years.

Branson plans to be on Virgin Galactic’s first commercial flight, which will take place from Spaceport America in New Mexico. His son, Sam, and other passengers are set to be aboard the flights. Perhaps he will take Apollo 11 moon walker Buzz Aldrin, who just turned 89, along with him.

Branson told AFP that Virgin Galactic costs $35 million per month or $420 million per year to operate. He previously estimated he has spent $1 billion to $1.3 billion on the SpaceShipTwo program since it was announced in 2004.

Virgin recently laid off about 40 employees from Virgin Galactic and its sister company, The Spaceship Company.

Virgin Galactic Pilots Awarded Commercial Astronaut Wings

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

Washington D.C., USA (7 Feb 2019) — In another historical moment for the commercial spaceflight industry, Virgin Galactic was proud today to see its pilots Mark ‘Forger’ Stucky and ‘CJ’ Sturckow, awarded Commercial Astronaut Wings by the U.S. Department of Transportation in recognition of the company’s ground-breaking first spaceflight from Mojave Air and Space Port CA, on December 13th last year.

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Layoffs at Virgin Galactic & The Spaceship Company

WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo take off at 7:11 a.m. PST from the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

NMPolitics.net is reporting that there were about 40 layoffs from Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company earlier this month as they prepare to begin commercial flights from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

A Virgin Galactic spokesman confirmed the layoffs in a statement via email.

Recently we separated a small number of our team in order to position our organization for the drive to commercial operations following our successful recent spaceflight, and make room for new skill sets that we need to bring in over the course of this year.  In total we separated around 40 people, less than 5% of our total workforce across Virgin Galactic and TSC. We are offering support to those impacted and sincerely thank them for their contributions, and wish them well for the future.

The news comes on the heels of a decision by SpaceX to lay off about 10 percent of its roughly 6,000 employees. Stratolaunch, which like Virgin Galactic is based in Mojave, announced last week that it was laying off about 50 employees as it down scaled plans for boosters to air launch from its massive aircraft.

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2018 Was Busy Year for Suborbital Flight Tests

SpaceShipTwo fires its hybrid engine. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Part 2 of 2

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

There were 15 flight tests of eight suborbital boosters in 2018, including six flights of two vehicles — Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard — that are designed to carry passengers on space tourism rides.

The race to provide launch services to the booming small satellite industry also resulted in nine flight tests of six more conventional boosters to test technologies for orbital systems. Two of the boosters tested are designed to serve the suborbital market as well.

A pair of Chinese startups took advantage of a loosening of government restrictions on launch providers to fly their rockets two times apiece. There was also suborbital flight tests of American, Japanese and South Korean rockets.

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Former NASA Astronaut No Fan of Richard Branson’s “Dangerous” & “Dead-end” SpaceShipTwo Vehicle

SpaceShipTwo breaks up in flight on Oct. 31, 2014. (Crredit: NTSB)

Four-time space shuttle astronaut Andy Thomas is no fan of Sir Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism vehicle, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reports.

“It’s really just a high altitude aeroplane flight and a dangerous one at that.”

He said the technology for the spacecraft had little room to grow.

“I think, as a technology to get humans out into space, it’s a go-nowhere, dead-end technology,” he said.

“You can’t grow it, you can’t make it big enough.”

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SpaceShipTwo Reaches Lower Definition of Space

SpaceShipTwo lands after a successful flight test. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Mojave, California, USA, 13 Dec 2018 (Virgin Galactic PR):  History has been made and a long-anticipated dream realised in Mojave, CA, today as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, landed from her maiden spaceflight to cheers from Richard Branson and the teams from Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company.

Not only is this the first human spaceflight to be launched from American soil since the final Space Shuttle mission in 2011, but the very first time that a crewed vehicle built for commercial, passenger service, has reached space.

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Branson Sets up Straw Man as Attempt to Reach Space Looms

Richard Branson speaks to the press at the Mojave Air and Space Port about the crash off SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

In promoting an upcoming flight test of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo that is intended to reach space, Richard Branson has set up a straw man as a critic that he will gleefully knock down should the vehicle lands safely back on Runway 12-30 in Mojave later this month.

“I obviously would love to prove our critics wrong, and I’m reasonably confident that before Christmas, we will do so,” he told CNN’s Rachel Crane in a video interview.

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Spaceport America: The Gift that Keeps on Taking (and Taking)

The Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space building. (Credit: Alex Heard)

Deborah Stevens, a public affairs specialist with the local office of the Bureau of Land Management, has written an op-ed for the Las Cruces Sun News titled, “Southern road to spaceport a gift to public in 2018,” in which she sing the praises of the newly paved 24-mile long southern road the shortens the drive from Las Cruces and Spaceport America.

For years before it was paved, the southern road was slow and hard on vehicles. It was generally passable by 4-wheel drive vehicles, but presented challenges to visitors in 2-wheel drive and low clearance vehicles, especially after rain storms. That is no longer true of the southern road, which starts from the Upham Exit 32 off Interstate 25 in Doña Ana County to the southeastern boundary of Sierra County.

For public land users, the southern road has now made it easier to access some of BLM’s outstanding public land resources, including the Point of Rocks and Yost Overlooks, the Jornado Del Muerto Trail, and the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail.

With the addition of some erosion control structures, like two concrete box culverts and rock gabions along the roadside, the public doesn’t have to worry about getting stuck in the mud should arroyos flood in the area.

Over time, the southern road will be the gift that keeps on giving, as people make their way between Doña Ana and Sierra counties on a reliable and well-paved road.

The benefits are undoubtedly real. But, let’s not kid ourselves: the road is less a gift to the people of Dona Ana and Sierra counties than an investment in infrastructure paid for by their own tax dollars.

The main reason the road was paved was due to the existence of Spaceport America, a project that has cost the people of the state and those two counties about $225 million (and counting) without much of the return on investment promised by Richard Branson and anchor tenant Virgin Galactic.

Driving up to Truth or Consequences and then doubling back to reach the spaceport, was seen as too long of a trip. So a dirt road was paved at a cost of $14 million to make the trip easier.

One can only wonder at what other pressing projects have not been attended to while New Mexico bent over backwards for Branson’s perpetually delayed plans to send well-heeled billionaires and millionaires on suborbital joy rides.

Branson Ramps Up SpaceShipTwo Hype, Again; Test Flight Coming Soon

Richard Branson and George Whitesides gave out at SpaceShipTwo after it came to a stop on Runway 12 after Unity’s first glide flight in December 2016. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Richard Branson is ramping up the hype again for his human spaceflight program.

CNN is here at the Mojave Air and Space Port today, doing live reports from Virgin Galactic’s FAITH facility, where the company builds and preps SpaceShipTwo and its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, for flights.

And Branson is predicting SpaceShipTwo will fly to some definition of space by Christmas. That means they will drop the vehicle and light the engine for roughly 1 minute for the first time in an effort to reach at least 50 miles (80.46 km/264,000 ft) in altitude.

We’ve all heard this before, of course. Branson was publicizing the hell out of SpaceShipTwo back in fall 2014, predicting he would be in space  on the first commercial flight within months. Then they would start flying more than 700 people who signed up. (CNN says the number is now down to about 600.)

Then SpaceShipTwo Enterprise crashed during a flight test on Oct. 31, 2014, killing co-pilot Mike Alsbury. It took Virgin Galactic about three years to get back to the same point in the flight test program with the second vehicle, Unity.

It was the second major setback for the program. In 2007 — the year Branson predicted commercial service would begin — three engineers were killed in a test stand explosion. Redesigning the nitrous oxide tank they were testing took years.

After more than a decade of delays and two fatal accidents, another space mogul might let the pilots fly the vehicle and hype the results afterward. But, that’s not the way Branson rolls. So, CNN is here today to preview the flight.

Branson is hyping an actual planned test this time. Barring any problems in the weeks ahead, we will see a flight before Dec. 21. At that point, everyone will take off for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, and the spaceport will become virtually a ghost town.

Virgin Galactic Chief Pilot David Mackay and test pilot Mark Stucky have flown the previous powered flights. I’m guessing they’ll be in the cockpit again this time for the program’s most challenging and dangerous test to date.

SpaceShipTwo Unity last flew four months ago. During its third powered flight on July 26, the vehicle reached 170,800 ft. (52 km/32.3 miles) and Mach 2.47 after firing its engine for 42 seconds.

Since the last flight test, engineers have been wrestling with several unidentified problems that were discovered on SpaceShipTwo.

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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Richard Branson Pops into Mojave to Check on Progress of Spaceflight Quest

Mojave Air and Space Port on a rare cloudy day. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Some day, Richard Branson might fly to space, gaze out the window, and see stars with his naked eyes, unencumbered by the Earth’s atmosphere or the optics of a telescope.

For the moment, he has to settle for his own fame and a star encased in concrete along the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The British billionaire was in Los Angeles last month for the unveiling of his star on that famous boulevard. While he was in the neighborhood, he popped up to the Mojave Air and Space Port, where Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company are working to make his dream of spaceflight a reality.

Given his early October prediction that Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity would fly to space in “weeks, not months,” one might have expected him to be here to view a spaceflight he has been promising for the past 14 years.

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