Fewer than 25 suborbital spaceflights have ever been conducted
Most suborbital launches were conducted with vehicles retired decades ago
No suborbital flight has ever carried a paying passenger
There is no agreement on what even constitutes a suborbital spaceflight
by Douglas Messier Managing Editor
When Richard Branson and three Virgin Galactic employees strap into their seats aboard SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity on Sunday, they will briefly go where not very many have gone before: suborbital space.
Of the 374 attempts to launch astronauts to space since Yuri Gagarin flew into Earth orbit 60 years ago, only 23 were suborbital flights. The majority of those launches were conducted during the 1960’s using vehicles that long ago became museum pieces. One ended with the loss of the spacecraft and its pilot. And two flights were unintentional ones involving vehicles being launched into Earth orbit.
The United States reclaimed the top spot in launches from China last year as NASA astronauts flew into orbit from American soil for the first time in nearly nine years, SpaceX deployed the world’s first satellite mega-constellation with reused rockets, and two new launchers debuted with less than stellar results.
American companies conducted 44 launches in 2020, with 40 successes and four failures. Bryce Tech reports that U.S. companies accounted for 32 of the 41 commercial launches conducted last year. The majority of those flights were conducted by SpaceX, which launched 25 orbital missions.
China came in second with a record of 35 successful launches and four failures. The 39 launch attempts tied that nation’s previous record for flights during a calendar year.
Let’s take a closer look at what U.S. companies achieved last year.
For eight years, they thundered aloft in cramped Russian spacecraft from a former Soviet spaceport in Kazakhstan, battling bureaucracy and gravity to blaze a trail across the heavens and redefine what it meant to be a space traveler. No longer would access to orbit be limited to highly trained astronauts chosen on merit and working on behalf of their nations; instead, space would be open to any sufficiently healthy people with enough money and moxie to qualify.
After 15 years of making extravagant but unkept promises to fly more than 600 “future astronauts” to space, Richard Branson must now please an entirely new group of people who are usually much shorter on patience: shareholders.
Following the completion last week of a merger with Social Capital Hedosophia (SCH), the British billionaire’s Virgin Galactic suborbital “space line” will begin trading under its own name on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on Monday.
Going public now is an unusual move for a space tourism company that hasn’t flown a singlet tourist to space since Branson announced the SpaceShipTwo program in 2004. Some might see it has putting the cart before the horse.
Fifteen years ago today on Sept. 29, 2004, Mike Melvill lit SpaceShipOne’s hybrid engine in the skies over the Mojave Desert and flew to an altitude of 102.93 km (337,697 ft) before gliding back to a landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port.
It was Melvill’s second space flight in the rocket plane that Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites built. And it was the first of two flights required for to win the $10 Ansari X Prize for the first privately-built crewed spacecraft to reach space twice within two weeks.
Melvill didn’t have an entirely smooth flight. The spacecraft rolled 29 times during ascent before he was able to bring the ship under control.
Melvill admitted in 2014 there was an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that he would shut off the engine if the vehicle started rolling. But, he and Rutan were not sure it was a good idea to shut off the engine.
Melvill added that as a shareholder in Scaled Composites, he didn’t want to risk not winning the $10 million prize, which was set to expire in three months at the end of 2004.
Five days after Melvill’s hair-raising flight, Brian Binnie piloted SpaceShipOne on a trouble-free flight tin win the Ansari X Prize. Binnie flew to 112.014 km (367,454 ft), breaking the X-15’s record of 107.96 km (354,200 ft) set in 1963.
It was SpaceShipOne’s final flight. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who spent $28 million backing Rutan’s entry in the competition, decided to retire the spacecraft. He accepted an offer to donate it to the Smithsonian Institution. SpaceShipOne hangs in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.
Allen licensed the technology to Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Scaled Composites and Virgin embarked on building the much larger SpaceShipTwo vehicle to fly tourists into space. Commercial flights are scheduled to begin next year.
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.
Sometime in 2020, if all goes according to plan, British billionaire Richard Branson will board Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity at Spaceport America in New Mexico and take the first commercial suborbital space flight in history.
The landmark flight, which Virgin has been trying to conduct for 15 years, will also be the culmination of a 30-year effort by New Mexico to become a commercial space power.
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).
Psychologists have identified five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These stages are clearly on display in Virgin Galactic’s Rocket Man, Nicholas Schmidle’s profile of Mark Stucky in The New Yorker. A substantial part of the story chronicles how the test pilot dealt with the death of his close friend, Mike Alsbury, in the breakup of SpaceShipTwo Enterprise during the vehicle’s fourth powered flight four years ago.
It’s a touching portrait of Stucky’s grief for his fellow Scaled Composites pilot, with whom he had flown while testing the suborbital spacecraft being developed for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. (Stucky later moved over to Virgin, which took over the SpaceShipTwo program after the accident, to test the second SpaceShipTwo, Unity.)
However, Schmidle tells only half the story in his otherwise insightful profile. He places nearly all the blame on Alsbury, while ignoring the findings of a nine-month federal investigation that identified systemic flaws in the development program and the government’s oversight that contributed to the accident.
It’s similar to the flawed, self-serving narrative that Branson used in his latest autobiography, “Finding My Virginity,” complete with a not-entirely-fair jab at the press coverage of the crash. The billionaire uses pilot error to obscure a decade of fatal mistakes and miscalculations. (more…)
Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen — who funded private spaceships, one of the largest aircraft in the world, and the search for life elsewhere in the Universe – has died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was 65.
“It is with deep sadness that we announce the death of @PaulGAllen, our founder and noted technologist, philanthropist, community builder, conservationist, musician and supporter of the arts, All of us who worked with Paul feel an inexpressible loss today,” Allen’s company, Vulcan, Inc., announced in a tweet.
Allen poured the billions he made from Microsoft into a number of business and philanthropic ventures, including three space projects. He spent $28 million to back Burt Rutan’s entry in the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million competition for the first privately-built crewed vehicle to reach space twice within a two-week period.
Rocket Billionaires: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the New Space Race by Tim Fernholz Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018 304 pp., illus. ISBN 978-1-328-66223-1 US$28
In 2004, a small vehicle named SpaceShipOne built by Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites and funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen flew three suborbital flights, becoming the first privately-built crewed craft to exit the Earth’s atmosphere. For their efforts, Rutan and Allen won the $10 million Ansari X Prize.
Rutan quickly teamed with another billionaire, Richard Branson, to build a successor vehicle named SpaceShipTwo for Virgin Galactic that would carry two pilots and six passengers on commercial suborbital flights as early as 2007. It didn’t quite work out as planned; 14 years later, SpaceShipTwo hasn’t flown anyone to space.
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.
Finding My Virginity: The New Autobiography Richard Branson Portfolio Oct. 10, 2017 482 pages
In his new book, Richard Branson recounts that on the morning of Oct. 31, 2014, he was on his private Caribbean island in a state of “schoolboy excitement.” The reason? Three time zones away in California’s Mojave Desert, Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites were conducting the longest and most ambitious flight test of the SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism vehicle.