SpinLaunch Breaks Ground for New Test Facility at Spaceport America

SPACEPORT AMERICA, NM, May 7, 2019 (Spaceport America PR) — Spaceport America, the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport, and SpinLaunch, an innovative new space company revolutionizing access to space, today celebrated the ground-breaking of SpinLaunch’s future test facility at Spaceport America.

Attending the groundbreaking ceremony was Dan Hicks, CEO, Spaceport America, Alicia Keyes, Cabinet Secretary for Economic Development for the State of New Mexico, and Jonathan Yaney, founder and CEO of SpinLaunch, among New Mexico government and business leaders, and students from area universities.

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Exos’ SARGE Rocket Reached 20 km Before Abort

An Exos Aerospace SARGE rocket reached 19.8 km (12.3 miles) before the flight abort after launch from Spaceport America on March 2, the company announced in a statement.

SARGE’s autonomous control system aborted the flight at about 65,000 ft after the rocket reached its instantaneous impact point (IIP) limit, Exos said. In essence, booster determined it was likely to land outside of the permissible range.

The flight had aimed to reach 80 km (49.7 miles). Despite the early abort, the company said it was pleased with the results of the second flight of the reusable booster, which previously flew last August.

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EXOS Aerospace Launches SARGE Suborbital Rocket From Spaceport America

The reusable, suborbital rocket landed back in the desert under a parachute. No information yet on altitude.

Flight programs and associated payloads on the flight included:

SPACEedu… Help your school fund, build, fly and reuse CubeSat projects for their S.T.E.M research programs. Having already flown for many schools, Exos is literally taking education to a higher level.  P1. Arete’ Greater Nanticoke Area Trojans (space thermal energy transfer experiment).

SPACEbuild… Test or manufacture in space aboard an Exos vehicle for premium exposure to space flight conditions. The reduced cost of suborbital flights makes it a preferred risk mitigation step for qualifying orbital payloads. P2. NASA (Vibration Damper – TRL advancement),  P3. University of Central Florida (Dust Aggregation experiment – SPACE-2 NASA REDDI Payload), P4. Agronautics, LLC (Space hops & grain), P5. SOLGW  (memorabilia)

SPACEaid… Perform breakthrough medical research by leveraging the ability to test in the microgravity and vacuum of space.  With Exos we can return your payload within minutes of landing.  Our soft (5G) launch and fin stabilization means a gentle ride for your payload requiring less effort in payload design over other commercial launch options.  P6. Center for Applied Space Technologies (Sponsoring Mayo Clinic for two “BRIC66” payloads performing cell research)

SPACEship… Launch from Spaceport American in New Mexico and we’ll deliver your payload to space and eject it to perform your test outside our vehicle.*  (LEO target aboard our reusable (first stage) Jaguar vehicle – late 2022).

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.

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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SpinLaunch Signs Lease with Spaceport America

Spaceport America has announced that SpinLaunch has signed a lease to conduct tests at the facility in southern New Mexico.

“An addition of 20 new jobs will be added locally, as well as investment by SpinLaunch of $7 million in construction capital and $1 million in local infrastructure development for the company,” the spaceport said in a press release.

SpinLaunch is developing a kinetic energy launch system that would spin in a circle at up to 5,000 miles per hour before it is released to fly to space. The system would not use any propellants.

Albuquerque Business First has some additional details on the Spaceport America deal.

The California company is leasing acreage from the commercial space hub near Truth or Consequences and will build a facility employing at least 20 people, according to spokeswoman Diane Murphy. It will include a launch site that Murphy said will serve as a testing grounds for its launching technology.

Spaceport CEO Dan Hicks said there was potential for a lease extension. SpinLaunch will invest $7 million in facility construction and $1 million in infrastructure development. The deal is important for the $220 million taxpayer-subsidized Spaceport, which has struggled in the past to secure tenants….

Murphy also said the company considered several locations for the test site, but that Spaceport provided the best mix of affordability and location. New Mexico’s renewable energy potential, universities and young labor pool were also considered assets.

SpinLaunch raised $40 million in venture funding last year. Most of the money came from Airbus Ventures, Alphabet Inc.’s GV (formerly Google Ventures), and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Suborbital Flights Stopped Being So Humdrum in 2018

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo’s first flight above 50 miles on Dec. 13, 2018. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Part 1 of 2

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Throughout the Space Age, suborbital flight has been the least exciting segment of the launch market. Operating in the shadow of their much larger orbital cousins, sounding rockets carrying scientific instruments, microgravity experiments and technology demonstrations have flown to the fringes of space with little fanfare or media attention.

The suborbital sector has become much more dynamic in recent years now that billionaires have started spending money in it. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic both made significant progress last year in testing New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo, respectively. Their achievements have raised the real possibility of suborbital space tourism flights in 2019. (I know. Promises, promises…. But, this year they might finally really do it. I think.)

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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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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.

DARPA Names Potential Sites for Launch Challenge, Eighteen Teams Prequalify

DARPA Launch Challenge candidate sites (Credit: DARPA)

ARLINGTON, Va. (NASA PR) — DARPA has narrowed the potential launch locations for the DARPA Launch Challenge to eight, with options for both vertical and horizontal launch. The challenge will culminate in late 2019 with two separate launches to low Earth orbit within weeks of each other from two different sites. Competitors will receive information about the final launch sites, payloads, and targeted orbit in the weeks prior to each launch.

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Officials Open Southern Road to Spaceport America

Virgin Galactic officials joined New Mexico state and local officials last week to officially open a new road to Spaceport America. The 24-mile road shortens the trip from Las Cruces to the spaceport by about 45 minutes. The new motorway was previously a bumpy dirt road.

Branson Says SpaceShipTwo Will Reach Space Within Weeks

Richard Branson rolls out Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Unity in Mojave. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Richard Branson is back in the headlines again talking schedules for SpaceShipTwo.

“We should be in space within weeks, not months. And then we will be in space with myself in months and not years,” the Virgin founder and CEO told CNBC’s Nancy’s Hungerford at the Barclays Asia Forum in Singapore Tuesday.

You can read the rest of the interview — in which he repeats the same things he’s been saying for the last 14 years — here.

What I think this means is that another flight test is coming soon. On the last one back in July, they fired the engine for 42 seconds. I would expect the upcoming flight will entail a full engine burn of about 60 seconds. This is a deduction on my part; there’s just not a lot of places to go in terms of burn length.

A full burn would get SpaceShipTwo to some definition of space. The international beginning of space — known as the Karman line — is 100 km (62.1 miles). The U.S. Air Force (USAF) awarded astronaut wings to X-15 pilots who flew to at least 50 miles (80.4 km) during the 1960’s.

Virgin Galactic’s agreement with its ticket holders uses the USAF standard as the minimum altitude promised. Since there are no mile markers up there, the view will be similar but the amount of time in microgravity will be slightly less than if the vehicle gets to the Karman line.

Several additional test flights are expected before Branson boards the first official commercial flight at Spaceport America in New Mexico. At this point, I’m guessing that will happen some time in 2019.