Series on Spaceport America Looks on the Bright Side

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

NMPolitics.net began a five-part series on Spaceport America today. Is Spaceport America taking flight? is the first installment.

The piece is fairly optimistic on the financial front, perhaps too much so. It examines positive financial impact on the local economy to date and projects forward to when Virgin Galactic begins flying commercially from the facility, possibly next year.
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Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Flight Test This Morning

First flight since June. Should be interesting. The weather finally cleared this week. It had been cloudy and rainy the last few days.

Virgin Galactic just confirmed on Twitter that this is a glide flight with motor installed in SpaceShipTwo and water ballast to simulate the ship being fueled.

UPDATE NO. 2:  Looks like they still have at least one more glide flight to go before powered flights begin. In response to a question about whether the next flight would be powered, CEO George Whitesides responded on Twitter: “No, not quite yet. Still have a few more things to work and test before we get to that milestone. But getting closer now.”

UPDATE: Successful flight. Tested ship with different CG (center of gravity) with engine installed and water ballast. Conducted nitrous dump while still attached to WhiteKnightTwo. Also tested the feather system. This was the sixth glide flight for SpaceShipTwo Unity and the 36th of the program.

If all that went well (and it likely did), then I’m guessing they’re ready to start powered flight tests within the next month or so. Richard Branson has been predicting SpaceShipTwo will fly to space by the end of the year, which is quite possible if this is the final glide flight.

This was a bit of a tough flight to follow from the ground. I lost the spacecraft in the cloud cover we’ve had all week. There were white clouds for a change; it was stormy for the last few days with dark clouds and some rain and lightning. Pretty standard for this time of year; we can get storms in the High Desert in August.

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Mojave: The Once and Future Spaceport

Sunset from the Mojave Air and Space Port on Oct. 30, 2014. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

At some point in the next six months, the Mojave Air and Space Port could experience something that not happened here in 13 long years: an actual spaceflight.

Richard Branson is predicting that Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity could reach space on a flight test from Mojave by December. For once, his prediction does not appear to be based on unrealistic hopes, the need to reassure customers about delays, or a complete misunderstanding of what is happening on the ground here.

In other words, it’s actually plausible. Whether it will happen on that schedule…that’s another question. Flight test is notoriously unpredictable and very tough on timetables.

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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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