Virgin Galactic President Mike Moses was at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) conference in Las Cruces, NM, this week updating everyone on the company’s effort to fly people into suborbital space aboard SpaceShipTwo. Meanwhile, the spacecraft’s mother ship flew in to make an appearance at it’s future home, Spaceport America (see video, above).
“Unity has been performing very well, sometimes better than models predicted,” Moses said. “Things are right on track where they need to be.”
Next up will be powered flight testing. While Unity is being tested, two more vehicles are being built to increase the fleet once it’s proven in powered flight. That, Moses said, is an indication of Virgin Galactic’s commitment to have multiple vehicles ready when commercial manned flights begin at Spaceport America.
Crews are putting final touches on the propulsion system and “pretty soon” will be evaluating supersonic boost. Virgin founder Richard Branson, in Helsinki last week, told Business Insider “We are hopefully about three months before we are in space, maybe six months before I’m in space.”
When questioned about that statement by ISPCS session moderator Ariane Cornell, Moses took a more conservative tone.
“Richard always poses a challenge, he likes to push us pretty hard,” Moses said. “Sometimes I wish he wouldn’t talk so much. We hope to be in space by the end of this year. We’ll take our time with it. We’re going to fly when we are ready.”
Ah, yeah…about that….Maybe if Virgin Galactic was already in powered flights. As it is, they still have at least one more glide flight to conduct. And they haven’t conducted one of those in two months.
It’s possible they only get one powered flight test off the ground by the end of the year. Would that leave them prepared to begin commercial flights by April? Probably not. There are a lot of variables involved — number of test flights, pace of testing, problems they discover — but six months would be pushing it.
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.
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.
Video Caption: The Virgin Galactic ground crew plays an essential role in our commercial spaceline operations. Meet our spaceship mechanics and watch them prepare our vehicles VSS Unity and VMS Eve for a flight — right up until they pull chocks for taxi and take-off.
Editor’s Note: SpaceShipOne would fly one more time, on Oct. 4, 2004, to claim the $10 million Ansari X Prize, before being retired and shipped off to be placed on permanent display the National Air & Space Museum.
Do you remember the optimism then? Do you recall promises by Burt Rutan and Richard Branson that they would soon inaugurate the era of space tourism with SpaceShipTwo? How it would all happen by 2007 or 2008?
Thirteen years, four deaths, three hospitalizations, one wrecked spaceship and numerous inaccurate predictions later, there has not been a single human suborbital space flight. Not one.
The very elements of SpaceShipOne that Rutan promoted as the safest innovations to come out of the program — the hybrid engine and feather reentry system — figured in the fatalities of the SpaceShipTwo program.
SpaceShipOne was a tremendous engineering achievement. And Scaled is justifiably proud of it.
But, it also turned out to be an extremely fragile thing upon which to base a commercial suborbital space tourism program. It bred a dangerous overconfidence and enshrined some poor engineering choices into the design of SpaceShipTwo.
The hybrid engine took a decade to scale up for SpaceShipTwo. It also claimed three lives in an explosion because Scaled had misplaced confidence in the safety of nitrous oxide.
Scaled Composites also lacked the required expertise to properly address pilot error in a human spaceship. When that was pointed out by FAA safety experts with experience on the space shuttle, George Nield issued a waiver instead of making Scaled perform the analysis properly. Whether a proper analysis would have prevented the loss of SpaceShipTwo Enterprise and Mike Alsbury is something we will never know.
So, this is a rather bittersweet anniversary. Scaled can certainly take pride in its accomplishments. It was the apex of Burt Rutan’s career. But, that pride is mixed with knowledge of all the pain and frustrations that occurred in the decade that followed. The loss of valued colleagues and the destruction of a ship engineers spent years building.
Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides spoke at the 20th Mars Society Convention last week where he gave an update on his company’s effort to reach space.
Whitesides said the company has “a very small number” of glide tests remaining for SpaceShipTwo Unity before the vehicle begins powered flights. He did not give a timeline for when Virgin Galactic would light the motor in flight.
Unity has conducted six glide flights since last December. The most recent one was on Aug. 4.
Whitesides showed a video of hot fire of the spacecraft’s hybrid engine. He said engineers had completed testing on the engine, which he called the most advanced hybrid in the world.
Two additional SpaceShipTwo vehicles are under construction at the Mojave Air and Space Port, he added. The cabin pieces of one of them were recently bonded together. The new vehicles will be ready for testing a year or two, Whitesides said.
The tax increase that Sierra County voters approved in 2008 to support the construction of Spaceport America has no expiration date and no restrictions on the use of excess revenues that might be collected each year, according to the ordinance passed by county commissioners.
The tax that residents of Dona Ana County voted to impose upon themselves to help fund the development of Spaceport America has no expiration date, meaning it could continue indefinitely after bonds used to pay for the construction are paid off in 2028, according to a review by KRWG TV/Radio.
Critics of the spaceport have said the .25 cent increase in the gross receipts tax should end after the construction bonds are paid off. They have also objected to the use of taxes in excess of what is needed to pay off the bonds to plug holes in the spaceport’s budget. They want the money to be used to pay off the bonds early.
KRWG’s Fred Martino did something that apparently had not occurred to anyone: he dug up the 2007 ordinance that county commissioners approved for the tax. The document has no expiration date and no restrictions on using revenues for spaceport operations.
To change the situation, county commissioners would need to pass an ordinance ending the tax and restricting the use of surplus tax revenues for operations.
New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) CEO Dan Hicks said he needs the tax to continue so the authority will have funding to expand the spaceport and attract new tenants to it. Spaceport America is in stiff competition with other spaceports around the country, he said.
NMSA has struggled financially due to years of delays by anchor tenant Virgin Galactic in flying suborbital space tourist flights from the southern New Mexico facility.
Sierra County voters also approved a similar tax increase to help pay for the spaceport.
The Sunday Times of London has an update on Virgin Galactic that seems to be based around an upcoming Brian Cox documentary on space tourism, which is set to air early next month in Britain.
Branson could be first in the mass tourism market despite a disastrous 2014 test flight in which a pilot died. Unity is to start rocket tests this autumn, and two more craft are under construction.
“We are hoping to be into space by the end of the year,” said Branson, who has spent £450m on the project. “The cost has been a lot more than we thought . . . but we can see the price falling and we could have 20 spaceships operating so that . . . enormous numbers of people could go into space.”
The story mostly features interviews with Virgin Galactic officials outlining their plans to start commercial operations from New Mexico. There will be a series of additional flight tests in Mojave, Calif., and then SpaceShipTwo will move down to Spaceport America for some additional tests before the start of commercial flights. Richard Branson has been prediction ticket holders will start flying in 2018.
In other words, nothing we haven’t been hearing for years and years, albeit with a shiny new set of dates.
Picking up on a theme covered in the third installment, this story details the lengths to which Spaceport America officials have gone to keep secret details of deals they have concluded with tenants.
“If you were to ask them would they want their leases out in the public they would say no,” [New Mexico Spaceport Authority CEO Dan] Hicks said. “…We just don’t want to have additional burdens on them or scrutiny on them.”
That’s a controversial stance in a poor state that has invested more than $220 million in Spaceport America – a state whose law intends that the public be given access to “the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government,” which it calls “an essential function of a representative government.”
There’s a real tension created by the public/private partnership that is the spaceport. On one hand, greater secrecy may help attract companies that demand it, and with them may come good-paying jobs the state needs. On the other hand is the principle that opening the spaceport’s finances builds accountability and public trust that is key to winning the government funding on which the spaceport also depends.
Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, sponsored legislation on behalf of the spaceport earlier this year that would have let the agency keep rent payments, trade secrets and other information secret. One committee approved the bill, but then it died.
These days Papen says she supports withholding company trade secrets from the public. But she no longer backs secrecy for money coming into the spaceport from private companies.
The spaceport authority didn’t always keep agreement terms secret. For example, Virgin Galactic’s development and lease agreements were released years ago without anything being redacted.
The situation is different at the Mojave Air and Space Port, which is a public general aviation airport run by an elected board. Lease agreements are included in board packets that are available to the public.
The fifth and final installment looking at anchor tenant Virgin Galactic’s preparations for space tourism flights from Spaceport America will be published on Friday.
This one deals with financing at Spaceport America. It requires a bit of understanding of the history of how it was funded.
So, here’s the back story: In 2007 and 2008, residents of Dona Ana and Sierra counties approved a quarter cent increase in the sales tax to help pay for the construction of Spaceport America, where billionaire Richard Branson plans to send rich people on suborbital joy rides.