Virgin Galactic Statement on Upcoming Flight Test

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

MOJAVE, Calif. (Virgin Galactic PR) — Our SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, is entering the next stage of testing. During this phase of the flight program we will be expanding the envelope for altitude, air speed, loads, and thermal heating. We also plan to burn the rocket motor for durations which will see our pilots and spaceship reach space for the first time. Although this could happen as soon as Thursday morning, the nature of flight test means that it may take us a little longer to get to that milestone. It has taken years of design and manufacturing work by The Spaceship Company to get to this exciting stage and has required testing of all the parts and subsystems that make up SpaceShipTwo.
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Virgin Galactic Set to Attempt Spaceflight on Thursday

View of SpaceShipTwo Unity from the tail boom. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic announced today that it would attempt the fourth flight of SpaceShipTwo Unity as early as Thursday morning from the Mojave Air and Space Port. The launch window runs through Saturday, Dec. 15.

“We plan to burn the rocket motor for longer than we ever have in flight before, but not to its full duration,” the company said in a statement that indicated the vehicle could reach a “space altitude.”

A full duration burn of Unity’s hybrid rubber-nitrous oxide engine would take approximately 60 seconds. This week’s flight will likely include a pilot and co-pilot but no passengers.

During its most recent flight test on July 26, Unity fired its hybrid engine for 42 seconds and reached an altitude of 32.3 miles (170,800 ft/52 km). It was the longest engine burn and highest flight in the program’s 14-year history.

By space altitude, Richard Branson’s space company apparently means the 50-mile (264,000 ft/80.4 km) boundary set by the U.S. Air Force for awarding astronaut wings to X-15 pilots in the 1960’s.

The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), which is the world governing body for air sports, sets the boundary of space at 100 km (62.1 miles/328,084 ft) . FAI recently announced it was exploring whether to lower the boundary to 80 km.

The 4.5-month long gap in powered flights is the longest for Virgin Galactic’s second SpaceShipTwo. The previous three tests came at roughly 2-month intervals.

Sources in Mojave say engineers have been grappling with several issues since July. The most serious one is a crack that was discovered in one of SpaceShipTwo’s major structural components. It’s not clear how the problem was addressed.

Potentially Historic Flights Loom in Mojave

View of SpaceShipTwo Unity from the tail boom. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

It looks as if things could get very busy here at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the coming weeks with a possible pair of historic milestone flights.

Sir Richard Branson has said he expects SpaceShipTwo Unity to make a flight into space before Christmas, which is just over two weeks away. Sources say a flight is highly likely barring technical or weather delays.

Parabolic Arc has also heard that Stratolaunch could attempt the historic first flight of its massive carrier aircraft before the new year.
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FAI Considers Lowering Boundary of Space

The second SpaceShipTwo is carried aloft by WhiteKnightTwo on its first captive carry flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Well, there’s some great news for Virgin Galactic as it prepares for an attempt to send SpaceShipTwo to space. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), which maintains records for aviation and spaceflight, is considering lowering the boundary of space from 100 to 80 km (62.1 to 47.7 miles).

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo probably can’t reach the 100 km boundary, which is also known as the Karman line.

FAI issued the following statement last week:

The Karman line is the 100km altitude used by FAI and many other organisations to mark the “boundary” of space . In the last few years there have been many scientific and technical discussions around this demarcation line for the “edge of space” and variance around this as a boundary condition for recognition of “astronaut” status.

Recently published analyses present a compelling scientific case for reduction in this altitude from 100km to 80km. These analyses combine data/modelling from a number of differing perspectives (latitudinal variations during solar cycles, theoretical lift coefficients for different size/configuration satellites ranging from cubesats to the International Space Station, perigee/apogee elliptical analysis of actual satellite orbital lifetimes etc) to a level that has never been done before in relation to this issue. They also provide an accurate overview of some of the historical arguments and inadvertent misrepresentations of Karman’s actual analyses and conclusions from over half a century ago.

FAI has therefore been in contact with the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) to propose that an international workshop is held during 2019 to fully explore this issue with input and participation from the astrodynamics and astronautical community.

Such a seminar, to be held under joint FAI/IAF auspices, would enable discussion from a wide range of professionals with relevant expertise to analyse and discuss the issue and possible redefinition of the altitude used by international organisations including FAI to recognise human spaceflights.

If the findings lead to a redefinition of the boundary of space as it is in use by international organisations, FAI would review any performances made between today’s statement and the date of implementation of the revised definition in order to ensure that these performances already take into consideration the findings as they exist today.

Branson Sets up Straw Man as Attempt to Reach Space Looms

Richard Branson speaks to the press at the Mojave Air and Space Port about the crash off SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

In promoting an upcoming flight test of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo that is intended to reach space, Richard Branson has set up a straw man as a critic that he will gleefully knock down should the vehicle lands safely back on Runway 12-30 in Mojave later this month.

“I obviously would love to prove our critics wrong, and I’m reasonably confident that before Christmas, we will do so,” he told CNN’s Rachel Crane in a video interview.

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Branson Ramps Up SpaceShipTwo Hype, Again; Test Flight Coming Soon

Richard Branson and George Whitesides gave out at SpaceShipTwo after it came to a stop on Runway 12 after Unity’s first glide flight in December 2016. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Richard Branson is ramping up the hype again for his human spaceflight program.

CNN is here at the Mojave Air and Space Port today, doing live reports from Virgin Galactic’s FAITH facility, where the company builds and preps SpaceShipTwo and its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, for flights.

And Branson is predicting SpaceShipTwo will fly to some definition of space by Christmas. That means they will drop the vehicle and light the engine for roughly 1 minute for the first time in an effort to reach at least 50 miles (80.46 km/264,000 ft) in altitude.

We’ve all heard this before, of course. Branson was publicizing the hell out of SpaceShipTwo back in fall 2014, predicting he would be in space  on the first commercial flight within months. Then they would start flying more than 700 people who signed up. (CNN says the number is now down to about 600.)

Then SpaceShipTwo Enterprise crashed during a flight test on Oct. 31, 2014, killing co-pilot Mike Alsbury. It took Virgin Galactic about three years to get back to the same point in the flight test program with the second vehicle, Unity.

It was the second major setback for the program. In 2007 — the year Branson predicted commercial service would begin — three engineers were killed in a test stand explosion. Redesigning the nitrous oxide tank they were testing took years.

After more than a decade of delays and two fatal accidents, another space mogul might let the pilots fly the vehicle and hype the results afterward. But, that’s not the way Branson rolls. So, CNN is here today to preview the flight.

Branson is hyping an actual planned test this time. Barring any problems in the weeks ahead, we will see a flight before Dec. 21. At that point, everyone will take off for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, and the spaceport will become virtually a ghost town.

Virgin Galactic Chief Pilot David Mackay and test pilot Mark Stucky have flown the previous powered flights. I’m guessing they’ll be in the cockpit again this time for the program’s most challenging and dangerous test to date.

SpaceShipTwo Unity last flew four months ago. During its third powered flight on July 26, the vehicle reached 170,800 ft. (52 km/32.3 miles) and Mach 2.47 after firing its engine for 42 seconds.

Since the last flight test, engineers have been wrestling with several unidentified problems that were discovered on SpaceShipTwo.

LifeStart Challenge Teams with Galactic Unite & Virgin Money to Inspire New Generation

Richard Branson rolls out Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Unity in Mojave. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

LONDON (LifeStart PR) — The LifeStart platform is partnering with Virgin Galactic Unite to challenge students on how they could help raise awareness of the benefits of space exploration to life on earth. Prizes include mentoring and a trip to the spaceport in California.

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Doug Shane & Jonathan Firth Depart Virgin Galactic, TSC

Doug Shane

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Richard Branson’s Mojave-based space companies have seen two high-level departures in recent months as they prepare to  launch SpaceShipTwo on a spaceflight for the first time.

Doug Shane has left his position as chairman of The Spaceship Company (TSC), which builds SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism vehicles, WhiteKnightTwo mother ships, and propulsion systems for Virgin Galactic.

Shane remains a member of the company’s board of advisors. A Virgin Galactic spokesman said the company has not replaced Shane as chairman.

Jonathan Firth, who served as executive vice president of spaceport and program development, has also left Virgin Galactic after 14 years with the company.  Firth’s Linkin page indicates he has left Virgin Galactic but does not say when he did so.

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What The New Yorker Gets Wrong About the SpaceShipTwo Accident

SpaceShipTwo debris in storage. (Credit: NTSB)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Psychologists have identified five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These stages are clearly on display in Virgin Galactic’s Rocket Man, Nicholas Schmidle’s profile of Mark Stucky in The New Yorker. A substantial part of the story chronicles how the test pilot dealt with the death of his close friend, Mike Alsbury, in the breakup of SpaceShipTwo Enterprise during the vehicle’s fourth powered flight four years ago.

It’s a touching portrait of Stucky’s grief for his fellow Scaled Composites pilot, with whom he had flown while testing the suborbital spacecraft being developed for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. (Stucky later moved over to Virgin, which took over the SpaceShipTwo program after the accident, to test the second SpaceShipTwo, Unity.)

However, Schmidle tells only half the story in his otherwise insightful profile. He places nearly all the blame on Alsbury, while ignoring the findings of a nine-month federal investigation that identified systemic flaws in the development program and the government’s oversight that contributed to the accident.

It’s similar to the flawed, self-serving narrative that Branson used in his latest autobiography, “Finding My Virginity,” complete with a not-entirely-fair jab at the press coverage of the crash. The billionaire uses pilot error to obscure a decade of fatal mistakes and miscalculations.
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Officials Open Southern Road to Spaceport America

Virgin Galactic officials joined New Mexico state and local officials last week to officially open a new road to Spaceport America. The 24-mile road shortens the trip from Las Cruces to the spaceport by about 45 minutes. The new motorway was previously a bumpy dirt road.

Video: Branson Talks Virgin Galactic Again

Editor’s Note: Every time I hear Branson talk about Virgin Galactic, I’m always reminded of Lord Whorfin’s speech in Buckaroo Bonzai: Across the 8th Dimension.

Lord John Whorfin: Where are we going?
Red Lectroids: Planet Ten!
Lord John Whorfin: When?
Red Lectroids: Real soon!

Their subsequent attempt to break on through doesn’t go exactly according to plan.

“We’re not in the 8th dimension. We’re over New Jersey,” a Red Lectroid reports dryly after their vehicle crashes through the wall of Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems. (The company’s motto is, “The Future Begins Tomorrow.”)

Branson recently said that SpaceShipTwo Unity would be in space in weeks, not months, implying that a flight featuring a full-duration engine burn of about one minute was imminent.

He’s made similar predictions before without Virgin Galactic blasting a spaceship past the Karman line. Nicholas Schmidle asked him about it for a profile he did for The New Yorker of pilot Mark Stucky titled, “Virgin Galactic’s Rocket Man,”

Branson admitted to me, “It would be embarrassing if someone went back over the last thirteen years and wrote down all my quotes about when I thought we would be in space.” But he also defended his approach: “If you are an optimist and you talk ahead of yourself, then everybody around you has got to catch up and try to get there.”

Huh. So all this…um…stuff — for lack of a better word — he’s been saying for 14 years was to keep the program moving along? To inspire the employees? Did it work?

And how should we judge his latest schedule pronouncement? Is it an accurate prediction of things to come? Or an effort to motivate the troops to overcome whatever issues they might have discovered during the previous three powered flight tests of Unity?

Time will tell. It’s been three months since the last flight test at the end of July. And the fourth anniversary of the loss of SpaceShipOne Enterprise is coming up on Halloween. That anniversary is, emotionally speaking, like a bad case of acid reflux. Brings up a lot of sad memories and emotions.

Paul Allen Passes Away From Cancer at 65

Paul G. Allen (By Miles Harris – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26491255)

Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen — who funded private spaceships, one of the largest aircraft in the world, and the search for life elsewhere in the Universe – has died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was 65.

“It is with deep sadness that we announce the death of @PaulGAllen, our founder and noted technologist, philanthropist, community builder, conservationist, musician and supporter of the arts, All of us who worked with Paul feel an inexpressible loss today,” Allen’s company, Vulcan, Inc., announced in a tweet.

Allen poured the billions he made from Microsoft into a number of business and philanthropic ventures, including three space projects. He spent $28 million to back Burt Rutan’s entry in the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million competition for the first privately-built crewed vehicle to reach space twice within a two-week period.

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Branson Says SpaceShipTwo Will Reach Space Within Weeks

Richard Branson rolls out Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Unity in Mojave. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Richard Branson is back in the headlines again talking schedules for SpaceShipTwo.

“We should be in space within weeks, not months. And then we will be in space with myself in months and not years,” the Virgin founder and CEO told CNBC’s Nancy’s Hungerford at the Barclays Asia Forum in Singapore Tuesday.

You can read the rest of the interview — in which he repeats the same things he’s been saying for the last 14 years — here.

What I think this means is that another flight test is coming soon. On the last one back in July, they fired the engine for 42 seconds. I would expect the upcoming flight will entail a full engine burn of about 60 seconds. This is a deduction on my part; there’s just not a lot of places to go in terms of burn length.

A full burn would get SpaceShipTwo to some definition of space. The international beginning of space — known as the Karman line — is 100 km (62.1 miles). The U.S. Air Force (USAF) awarded astronaut wings to X-15 pilots who flew to at least 50 miles (80.4 km) during the 1960’s.

Virgin Galactic’s agreement with its ticket holders uses the USAF standard as the minimum altitude promised. Since there are no mile markers up there, the view will be similar but the amount of time in microgravity will be slightly less than if the vehicle gets to the Karman line.

Several additional test flights are expected before Branson boards the first official commercial flight at Spaceport America in New Mexico. At this point, I’m guessing that will happen some time in 2019.