While Boeing and SpaceX move toward flying astronauts to the International Space Station this year, there are two other companies working on restoring the ability to launch people into space from U.S. soil.
Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic aren’t attempting anything as ambitious as orbital flight. Their aim is to fly short suborbital hops that will give tourists and scientists several minutes of microgravity to float around and conduct experiments in.
The morning of Dec. 3, 2016, began like so many others in Mojave. The first rays of dawn gave way to a brilliant sunrise that revealed a cloudless, clear blue sky over California’s High Desert.
This was hardly newsworthy. For most of the year, Mojave doesn’t really have weather, just temperatures and wind speeds. It had been literally freezing overnight; the mercury was at a nippy 28º F (-2.2º C) at 4 a.m. As for Mojave’s famous winds – an enemy of roofs, trees and big rigs, but the lifeblood of thousands of wind turbines that cover the landscape west of town – there really weren’t any. It was basically a flat calm.
Pete Siebold and Mike Alsbury heard the sound of hooks disengaging and felt a sharp jolt as SpaceShipTwo was released from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship. Relieved of a giant weight, WhiteKnightTwo shot upward as the spacecraft plunged toward the desert floor.
“Fire,” Siebold said as the shadow of one of WhiteKnightTwo’s wings passed across the cabin.
“Arm,” Alsbury responded. “Fire.”
The pilots were pushed back into their seats as SpaceShipTwo’s nylon-nitrous oxide hybrid engine ignited behind them, sending the ship soaring skyward on a pillar of flames.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
The Virgin Galactic Show Rolls on Through Season 13 with a Very Special Guest Star
By Douglas Messier Managing Editor
Richard Branson was back in Mojave last month for the latest episode of The Virgin Galactic Show, the world’s longest-running reality program about space travel.
Accompanying the billionaire were his son, Sam, and celebrity scientist and television presenter Brian Cox. GeekWire called the trio a “star studded cast,” a label that was probably more accurate than the writer realized.
The script for this visit was virtually identical to the one used when Richard Branson was here back in early December for the first glide flight of SpaceShipTwo No. 2, Unity.
With the month of August upon us and no sign of relief from the oppressive desert heat, Mojave has at least one thing to look forward to: the first SpaceShipTwo flights in nearly two years.
Virgin Galactic officials have said they expect to begin flight tests of its second SpaceShipTwo vehicle sometime this month. The test program will begin with captive carry flights aboard the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft followed by glide flights. Powered tests are expected in 2017.