Review: Rocket Billionaires Elon Musk & Jeff Bezos Battle for Control of Space

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

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.

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Mojave Receives $1 Million for Taxiway B Extension

Taxiway B at the Mojave Air and Space Port will be extended into the field on the left of the photo. (Credit: Google Maps)

The Mojave Air and Space Port’s “taxiway of dreams” — Taxiway B — will be extended with the help of a $1.05 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“These Airport Improvement Grants are investments in our country’s critical infrastructure,” said DOT Secretary Elaine Chao in a press release. “This grant is a down payment to ensure Mojave remains an economic engine as demand grows.”

The taxiway is so nicknamed because it was built without having a specific tenant signed up. Taxiway B serves the FAITH hangar, which is home to Virgin Galactic, The Spaceship Company and their two vehicles, SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo.

A sister company, Virgin Orbit, plans to operate its Boeing 747 out of Mojave. The aircraft, which is named Cosmic Girl, will air launch satellites over the Pacific Ocean with the LauncherOne booster.

The funding to Mojave is part of $770.8 million in airport infrastructure grants announced on Friday. It is the third allotment of a total of $3.18 billion allocated under the DOT’s Airport Improvement Program.

SpaceShipTwo Hit Nearly Mach 2.5 in Successful Flight Test

SpaceShipTwo Unity during third flight test. (Credit: MarsScientific.com & Trumbull Studios)

MOJAVE, Calif. (Virgin Galactic PR) — Virgin Galactic test pilots broke Mach 2 this morning, as VSS Unity took her third rocket-powered supersonic outing in less than four months. After a clean release from carrier aircraft VMS Eve at 46,500 ft, pilots Dave Mackay and Mike “Sooch” Masucci lit the spaceship’s rocket motor, before pulling up into a near vertical climb and powering towards the black sky at 2.47 times the speed of sound.

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More Awesome Photos of SpaceShipTwo’s Flight Test

WhiteKnightTwo with SpaceShipTwo Unity during the third powered flight test. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Some great shots of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo Unity during the third powered flight.

SpaceShipTwo Unity soars skyward during third powered flight. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Branson Honored for Space Efforts at Apollo Celebration Awards Ceremony

Richard Branson (l) and George Whitesides (r) walk with SpaceShipTwo pilots David Mackay and Mark Stucky after a successful glide flight. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson was one of three people honored for contributions to further space exploration during the Apollo Celebration Gala held at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Saturday.

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Mojave Moments: What Really Keeps the Spaceport in Operation

What is it that keeps the Mojave Air and Space Port operating?

Is it Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo? Paul Allen’s monster rocket launching airplane they call Birdzilla? Mojave’s amazing amenities and it warm, welcoming atmosphere that lead people to call it the Mayberry of the West?

Uhhh….no. Not even close.

It’s the last thing one would expect in conservative, oil-rich, get government off our back and let us do our own thing Kern County, the Texas of California.

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)

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.

House Measure Boosts FAA Commercial Space & Spaceport Spending

Mojave Air and Space Port (Credit: Douglas Messier)

The FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA AST) would see its budget more than triple over the next five years while the nation’s spaceports would receive more financial support for infrastructure under a measure passed by the House on Friday.

Under the bill, FAA AST would received just under $22.6 million for fiscal year 2018, with the following increases for the years to follow:

  • FY 2019: $33,038,000
  • FY 2020: $43,500,000
  • FY 2021: $54,970,000
  • FY 2022: $64,449,000
  • FY 2023: $75,938,000.

FAA AST has received only small budget increases in recent years despite experiencing a large increases in its workload as it oversaw the nation’s burgeoning commercial space sector.

Despite the funding stipulated in the reauthorization bill, House and Senate appropriators are not required to fund FAA AST at these levels.

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