Investigative Journalism Report Coming on Spaceport America

Virgin Galactic President George Whitesides, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, Richard Branson, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson at the dedication of Spaceport America’s runway in October 2010. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Well, this ought to be interesting…

What NMPolitics.net is working on

By Heath Haussamen, NMPolitics.net
June 19, 2017

I’ve been working for months on an investigative project into the status of Spaceport America. The question of whether the spaceport is providing an economic benefit to the state is front-and-center, but I’m also exploring transparency and other issues. I’ve visited the spaceport, interviewed Virgin Galactic employees, dug deep into documents and researched what’s happening in other states that have spaceports. I’ve obtained information the public has never seen and am excited to publish this series. Look for it sometime in July.

NmPolitics.net

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Thirteen Years Ago Today in Mojave…

Me on the right with the video camera filming White Knight with SpaceShipOne on the taxiway prior to the first commercial spaceflight. (Credit: John Criswick)

Thirteen years ago I was on the Mojave flight line to watch Mike Melvill make the first private spaceflight aboard SpaceShipOne.

I remember well the excitement of that day, the feeling that a new era of human spaceflight lay right around the corner. Today, there’s really only one thing to say:

All the hype we’ve been listening to for the last 13 years about how great SpaceShipOne and the Ansari X Prize were and what great things they did. Meanwhile, SpaceShipTwo has dragged on longer than the entire Apollo moon program without flying to space. And there have been no other commercial human spaceflights, either.

In terms of inspiration, these things were great. A bit of a disaster from a technological standpoint.

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New Mexico’s Spending on Spaceport America Likely Not Over

Sunset at the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space” terminal hangar facility at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

After a decade of broken promises and delays, the next year could bring some very good news for New Mexico’s $225 million taxpayer-funded Spaceport America.

Anchor tenant Virgin Galactic’s lease payments are increasing. And Richard Branson’s prediction for the start of commercial spaceflights there in 2018 appear (for once) to be on the mark, barring major problems with SpaceShipTwo’s flight test program.

So, it would seem that at long last, New Mexico’s hard-pressed taxpayers will finally be off the hook for supporting the spaceport. Right?…I mean, right?

Not necessarily.

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Branson Back to Making Predictions About SpaceShipTwo’s Schedule

Richard Branson and George Whitesides gave out at SpaceShipTwo after it came to a stop. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Now that the second SpaceShipTwo Unity has five glide flights under its belt, the “we’ll fly when we’re ready, we don’t make predictions” era appears to be officially over at Virgin Galactic.

“I certainly would be very disappointed if I don’t go up next year. And I would hope it’s earlier than later in the year,” Richard Branson told British GQ. “The programme says that we should be [testing] in space by December, as long as we don’t have any setbacks between now and then.”

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Questions Raised Over Brian Cox Documentary on Virgin Galactic & Commercial Space

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By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Back in February, Professor Brian Cox traveled here to Mojave with his friends Richard and Sam Branson to watch the third glide flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity.

Bowled over by what he saw even before the suborbital tourism vehicle glided overhead, Cox gave what amounted to a rousing endorsement of Virgin Galactic and SpaceShipTwo to a gathering of company employees.

“People ask me a lot because I’m a space geek and I’m obviously an evangelist for space, ‘Would you fly to space?” Cox said with Richard Branson seated beside him. “And I’ve always said, ‘Well yes and no, because in some sense it’s a dangerous thing to do.’ However, the moment I walked in this hangar and saw that aircraft, I thought, I want to get on that aircraft. So the answer is now is 100 percent yes.”

What was not widely known at the time was that Cox was filming a BBC-commissioned documentary about commercial space. And the company the corporation commissioned to co-produce it, Sundog Pictures, is owned and run by none other than Cox’s good friend, Sam Branson.

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Bezos vs. Branson: Who is Winning the Race to Space?

SpaceShipTwo dumps water. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Clive Irving, senior consulting editor at Condé Nast Traveler, believes that Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin have zoomed ahead of Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic.

In his story, “Jeff Bezos Will Leave Richard Branson Behind in the Dust,” he writes

Let’s face it: by any rational measure so-called space tourism is a preposterously frivolous idea. Nonetheless, hundreds of thrill-seekers were willing to pay around $2,300 a minute for the ride as soon as Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture was launched in 2005. The first passenger-carrying flight was supposed to happen 10 years ago, in 2007. It slipped to 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013…now…maybe… next year.

But if once it seemed like an idea whose time would never come (leaving aside for the moment the issue of whether it ever should) Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin team—not Branson—now seems more than ever likely to be the first to deliver….

Whereas Branson over the years staged numerous junkets for the media in which success was claimed to be imminent, this April Bezos staged his first preview of the ride on Blue Shepard at the annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs with the warning that, “It’s a mistake to race to a deadline when you’re talking about a flying vehicle, especially one that you’re going to put people on.”

[….]

In less than a year of testing, Bezos has been able to do something that Branson has failed to do in more than a decade: demonstrate proof of concept….

Technically, New Shepard is the precursor of the much more ambitious New Glenn, Blue Origin’s multi-stage rocket program that will launch astronauts and satellites into orbit. (The Virgin Galactic design is an evolutionary dead end – it cannot be scaled up for orbital flight.) As he did with Amazon, Bezos has always had a very clear-eyed idea of what it would cost to get into the business, of the technical challenges, and of the time needed to master them.

It’s a good story that’s worth a read. I did notice one factual error: the tail stall and inverted spin that SpaceShipTwo experienced during a flight test occurred in 2011, not 2013.

SpaceShipTwo Glides Again

SpaceShipTwo dumps water. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity made its fifth glide flight over the Mojave Desert on Thursday.  According to the company

Today, VSS Unity pilots Dave Mackay and CJ Sturckow, had an equally busy test-card, but with the emphasis on proving the spaceship’s handling qualities, particularly at low speeds, with more weight on board than previously, and with a centre of gravity shifted towards the back of the vehicle.

This was achieved by loading around 1000lbs of water into a specially installed ballast tank in the rear of the spaceship’s fuselage. That enabled us to explore the flight conditions we will experience during rocket powered flights. By jettisoning the water ballast on descent, we were also able to confirm handling characteristics as the vehicle’s centre of gravity moved forward. Unity completed the flight with a safe and smooth landing in its lighter-weight configuration.

Today’s events represent another important milestone as we move towards the end of the of the initial glide test portion of the program and turn our attention to the spaceship’s propulsion system. To that end, as we analyse the data from today’s flight, we will be moving into a period of ground-based activity focussed on preparation for fuelled and then powered flights. As always, meticulous preparation and a focus on safety will determine next steps and timelines, but we expect to be back in the air in the not too distant future.

Mojave Journal: Good Rockets are Hard to Find

Stratolaunch carrier aircraft rolled out of its hangar for the first time. (Credit: Stratolaunch)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Checking my messages on Wednesday at LAX after a long flight from back east, I was startled to learn that Paul Allen’s ginormous Stratolaunch aircraft had been rolled out of its hangar for the first time in Mojave while I was in transit.

I had been expecting some official roll-out ceremony later this year ala SpaceShipTwo where the press and public could get a good look at the twin fuselage, WhiteKnightTwo-on-steroids air-launch platform.

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Virgin Galactic’s Attenborough Promises Greater Safety on SpaceShipTwo

SpaceShipTwo glides to a landing at Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic Commercial Director Stephen Attenborough was in Australia where he made a presentation in which he promised a greater level of safety for the company’s shrunken base of customers.

“We are a better and safer company as a result of that incident. One of the outcomes of testing is failure. We live in a risk averse world and it can come as a shock when something like that happens,’’ Mr Attenborough told the State Library audience, which included ANZ chief executive Shayne Elliott.

“We have (since) looked at every element of the vehicle and every element of the operation.’’

Virgin Galactic is locked in a race with the likes of private firms Blue Origin and billionaire Tesla founder Elon Musk’s Space X to be the first private company to successfully send commercial passengers into space….

Already 650 people have bought tickets to fly, including celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. But if you bought a ticket today, you would get to the front of the queue by around 2021, according to Mr Attenborough.

Virgin Galactic officials had previously stated the number of ticket holders to be around 700. The company had cancellations after the first SpaceShipTwo was destroyed in a test flight on Halloween 2014.

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California Considers Tax on Launches Within the State

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the WorldView-4 spacecraft lifts off from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base. (Credit: ULA)

California’s Franchise Tax Board is seeking public comment on a proposed new tax that would fall upon ULA, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and other companies launching spacecraft from within the state.

The levy would apply to companies “that generates more than 50 percent of its gross receipts from the provision of space transportation activity for compensation in a taxable year,” the proposal states. Space is defined as 62 statute miles (100 km) or more above Earth.
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Virgin Galactic Video of Feather Test

Video Caption: On May 1st, 2017 VSS Unity “feather” re-entry system was activated in flight for the first time.

VSS Unity was piloted by Mark Stucky and Mike Masucci, with pilots Nicola Pecile and CJ Sturckow as well as flight test engineer Dustin Mosher in carrier aircraft VMS Eve. This test flight was the fourth glide flight (and eighth flight overall) of VSS Unity.

VSS Unity Project Engineer, Gabe Williams, describes the vehicle’s unique feathering re-entry system.

SpaceShipTwo: Coming Soon to a Theme Park Near You

Virgin Spaceship Unity flies freely after being released from Virgin Mothership Eve on 1 May 2017. During this test, the feather re-entry system was activated in flight for the first time.

Well, this is interesting.

Virgin Galactic seems to be working on something with legendary special effects guru Doug Trumbull, he of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame. Note the credit in the photo above for his studios.

But, wait! There’s more than just a long-distance photo of SpaceShipTwo in full feather. Read on (emphasis mine).

Movie visionary, Doug Trumbull, has developed an advanced capture and display solution called Magi. It is based upon images captured and displayed in stereoscopic 3D, 4K and 120 frames per second. It is a solution that can be used in many areas, not just theaters, and he has been working hard to develop the concept and gain advocates….

Theme parks are another clear opportunity. Trumbull described a joint venture project he is working on with Virgin Galactic that would create a giant sphere in which a series of smaller venues would be located. Called Space Island, it could be located at the Kennedy Space Center and would be capped with a full dome theater, several full Magi theaters along with a number of Magi Pods and smaller simulators using the same Magi technology. Planned elements include the ability to drive a Mars rover, walk on the surface of Mars using augmented reality (Trumbull is on the Advisory Board at Magic Leap), travel through interstellar space, experience a simulation of Virgin Galactic’s suborbital flight service, take mini adventures on moons or asteroids, and more. There is nothing like this and I think it would be extremely cool. I would pay $100 to spend the day there.

I would note that today’s flight was the first time we know of that Virgin Galactic has used a drone during one of its flight tests. It might have used Magi to capture pictures of the takeoff and landing.

The video above explains the Magi process….eventually.

You can read more about Magi here.

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SpaceShipTwo Completes Feathered Glide Flight

Virgin Galactic completed a successful feathered glide flight of SpaceShipTwo Unity this morning. This was Unity’s fourth glide flight and first feather test for Richard Branson’s space line.

Ken Brown and I got some good pictures of the takeoff. Waiting to see if Ken got some good ones of the drop. For this flight, we didn’t have the best vantage point for that, so we’ll have to see what he captured. He’s busy with some other work right now, so maybe later today. I’ll post some Virgin Galactic photos when they release them.

Virgin Galactic was using a drone that was operating at the Mojave Air and Space Port. If it worked as advertised, we can look forward to interesting video of the takeoff and landing.

If you haven’t already done so, please follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/spacecom. Stay informed on all the breaking space news of the day.

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SpaceShipTwo Flight Test Scheduled for this Morning

SpaceShipTwo glides through the Mojave sky followed by an Extra chase plane. (Credit; Ken Brown)

Word has it that Virgin Galactic has scheduled the fourth glide flight of SpaceShipTwo Unity this morning in Mojave. The test will be the first for Richard Branson’s suborbital space plane in more than two months.

Cell service permitting,  I will be providing coverage of the test at www.twitter.com/spacecom

On the test card for today is deployment of the new spaceship’s redesigned feather system, which re-configures the ship when it returns from space. Unity will be hauled aloft to an altitude of about 50,000 feet by the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft Eve.

The premature deployment of the feather system during powered ascent led to the destruction of the first SpaceShipTwo Enterprise during a flight test on Oct. 31, 2014. Scaled Composites pilot Mike Alsbury died in the accident. Virgin Galactic has added a mechanism to the feather system to prevent premature deployment of the feather.

The weather forecast looks good for the flight, with sunny skies and low surface wind speeds.

There’s a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) for the operation of an unmanned aerial system (UAS) at the spaceport from 6 a.m. to noon. It’s not clear who will be operating the system, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Virgin Galactic is aiming to capture video of the flight from the air.

The six-hour period for UAS operations overlaps with the likely window for a SpaceShipTwo flight test. So, it is unlikely that this is a coincidence.

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