Virgin Galactic Getting Closer to Powered Flight Tests

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

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides spoke at the 20th Mars Society Convention last week where he gave an update on his company’s effort to reach space.

Whitesides said the company has “a very small number” of glide tests remaining for SpaceShipTwo Unity before the vehicle begins powered flights. He did not give a timeline for when Virgin Galactic would light the motor in flight.

Unity has conducted six glide flights since last December. The most recent one was on Aug. 4.

Whitesides showed a video of hot fire of the spacecraft’s hybrid engine. He said engineers had completed testing on the engine, which he called the most advanced hybrid in the world.

Two additional SpaceShipTwo vehicles are under construction at the Mojave Air and Space Port, he added. The cabin pieces of one of them were recently bonded together. The new vehicles will be ready for testing a year or two, Whitesides said.

No End in Sight for Spaceport America Tax

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

The tax increase that Sierra County voters approved in 2008 to support the construction of Spaceport America has no expiration date and no restrictions on the use of excess revenues that might be collected each year, according to the ordinance passed by county commissioners.

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Branson Envisions 20 SpaceShipTwos; Brian Cox’s Space Race Doc Prepares to Drop

Richard Branson and George Whitesides gave out at SpaceShipTwo after it came to a stop on Runway 12. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

The Sunday Times of London has an update on Virgin Galactic that seems to be based around an upcoming Brian Cox documentary on space tourism, which is set to air early next month in Britain.

Branson could be first in the mass tourism market despite a disastrous 2014 test flight in which a pilot died. Unity is to start rocket tests this autumn, and two more craft are under construction.

“We are hoping to be into space by the end of the year,” said Branson, who has spent £450m on the project. “The cost has been a lot more than we thought . . . but we can see the price falling and we could have 20 spaceships operating so that . . . enormous numbers of people could go into space.”

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Investigative Series on Spaceport America Ends With a Whimper

SpaceShipTwo glides over the Mojave Desert after being released from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship. (Credit; Virgin Galactic)

The fifth and final installment of NMPolitics.net’s series on Spaceport America was published today: After years of delays, Virgin Galactic prepares for spaceflights from NM

The story mostly features interviews with Virgin Galactic officials outlining their plans to start commercial operations from New Mexico. There will be a series of additional flight tests in Mojave, Calif., and then SpaceShipTwo will move down to Spaceport America for some additional tests before the start of commercial flights. Richard Branson has been prediction ticket holders will start flying in 2018.

In other words, nothing we haven’t been hearing for years and years, albeit with a shiny new set of dates.

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How Much Secrecy Does Spaceport America Need?

Richard Branson and his children hang out with Project Bandaloop dancers during the dedication of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space facility. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

The fourth installment of NMPolitics.net’s five-part series on Spaceport America was published today. How much secrecy does Spaceport America need?

Picking up on a theme covered in the third installment, this story details the lengths to which Spaceport America officials have gone to keep secret details of deals they have concluded with tenants.

“If you were to ask them would they want their leases out in the public they would say no,” [New Mexico Spaceport Authority CEO Dan] Hicks said. “…We just don’t want to have additional burdens on them or scrutiny on them.”

That’s a controversial stance in a poor state that has invested more than $220 million in Spaceport America – a state whose law intends that the public be given access to “the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government,” which it calls “an essential function of a representative government.”

There’s a real tension created by the public/private partnership that is the spaceport. On one hand, greater secrecy may help attract companies that demand it, and with them may come good-paying jobs the state needs. On the other hand is the principle that opening the spaceport’s finances builds accountability and public trust that is key to winning the government funding on which the spaceport also depends.

Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, sponsored legislation on behalf of the spaceport earlier this year that would have let the agency keep rent payments, trade secrets and other information secret. One committee approved the bill, but then it died.

These days Papen says she supports withholding company trade secrets from the public. But she no longer backs secrecy for money coming into the spaceport from private companies.

The spaceport authority didn’t always keep agreement terms secret. For example, Virgin Galactic’s development and lease agreements were released years ago without anything being redacted.

The situation is different at the Mojave Air and Space Port, which is a public general aviation airport run by an elected board. Lease agreements are included in board packets that are available to the public.

The fifth and final installment looking at anchor tenant Virgin Galactic’s preparations for space tourism flights from Spaceport America will be published on Friday.

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SwRI, CSF Announce 2017 Suborbital Space Researchers Conference

SAN ANTONIO, Aug. 23, 2017  (SwRI/CSF PR) — As a new generation of suborbital space vehicles prepares to come online for space research, education, and space tourism over the next two years, the 2017 Next-generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC) will bring together hundreds of researchers, educators, flight providers, spaceport operators, government officials, and others in late December. NSRC-2017 will be held in Broomfield, Colo., just outside Denver, Dec. 18–20, opened by a Dec. 17 reception featuring experienced NASA and commercial astronauts.

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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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A Look at the History of Suborbital Spaceflight

Neil Armstrong with the X-15 on the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

With Richard Branson once again predicting that Virgin Galactic will fly SpaeShipTwo into space before the end of the year, it seems like a good time to take a look at the history of suborbital spaceflight.

The number of manned suborbital flights varies depending upon the definition you use. The internationally recognized boundary is 100 km (62.1 miles), which is also known as the Karman line. The U.S. Air Force awarded astronaut wings to any pilot who exceeded 80.5 km (50 miles).

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XCOR Lays off Remaining Employees

Lynx engine hot fire. (Credit: XCOR)

Struggling XCOR Aerospace has laid off its remaining employees in Mojave, Calif. and Midland, Texas.

“Due to adverse financial conditions XCOR had to terminate all employees as of 30 June 2017,” the company said in a statement. “XCOR management will retain critical employees on a contract basis to maintain the company’s intellectual property and is actively seeking other options that would allow it to resume full employment and activity.”

The move follows the news last month that CEO Jay Gibson was leaving the company after President Donald Trump nominated him for a high-level position at the Department of Defense. Gibson left the company at the end of June.

XCOR hired Gibson in March 2015 to replace founder Jeff Greason. The objective was for Gibson to focus on the business side while Greason focused on completing construction on the two-seat Lynx suborbital space plane.

That arrangement did not work out. By November, Greason and two other founders, Dan DeLong and Aleta Jackson, had left the company to found Agile Aerospace.

Greason, DeLong, Jackson and Doug Jones founded the company in 1999 after being laid off from Rotary Rocket.

In May 2016, XCOR laid off about 25 employees — roughly half of its workforce — and suspended work on the Lynx. The company has since refocused its energies on its rocket engine work.

XCOR had been working on an upper stage for United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan launch vehicle.

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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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Spaceport America Tax: The Levy that Keeps on Taking

The Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space building with a security fence around it. (Credit: Alex Heard)

Residents of New Mexico’s Dona Ana and Sierra counties will continue to subsidize Spaceport America’s operating budget for at least another year.

The New Mexico Finance Authority agreed to let the spaceport for one year use extra money from the taxes that shoppers pay in two Southern New Mexico counties. But the spaceport wanted the excess tax money in perpetuity, a proposal that the finance authority declined to grant as its chairman raised questions about the facility’s financial strength.

Though some politicians have supported the spaceport’s proposal, others have argued the tax money was only intended to help build the facility, not cover its day-to-day expenses.

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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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