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Space Access Society Update #137

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Space Access Update #137
  11/24/14
Copyright 2014 by Space Access Society
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In this Issue:

         Maintaining An Even Strain

         Commercial Crew Followup

         Booster & Engine Developments

         Space Access ’15 Conference, April 2015

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Maintaining An Even Strain

Many times over the years, we’ve gotten feedback to the effect that “things are going so well for this new industry, don’t you think it’s time to declare victory and move on?”

Oddly enough, none of those times was during this last month. The spectacular loss of two different commercial space vehicles in quick succession now has some questioning the viability of the entire commercial space industry.

Continue reading ‘Space Access Society Update #137′

Sierra Nevada Shuts Down Poway, Lays Off More Than 100

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Dream Chaser hybrid motor test firing. (Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation)

Dream Chaser hybrid motor test firing. (Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation)

Sources report that Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) has shut down its rocket engine test facility in Poway, Calif., where the company has tested propulsion systems for the Dream Chaser space shuttle and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle.

The company laid off more than 100 employees last week, including around 70 in Poway with the rest in Colorado, sources report.

Sierra Nevada lost out on two big contracts this year. In May, Virgin Galactic announced it was switching from SNC’s rubber hybrid to a nylon hybrid engine developed by Scaled Composites to power SpaceShipTwo. The rubber hybrid had been tested down in Poway.

In September, SNC lost out on the next round of NASA Commercial Crew Program contracts when the space agency selected Boeing and SpaceX to develop vehicles to fly to the International Space Station. SNC’s Dream Chaser shuttle was not selected.

SNC has appealed the decision. The Government Accountability Office has until early January to make a decision on the appeal.

Branson Backs Virgin Galactic Boss George Whitesides

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Geroge Whitesides addresses the crowd during the dedication of Spaceport America's runway.

Geroge Whitesides addresses the crowd during the dedication of Spaceport America’s runway.

In an opinion piece, Richard Branson heaps great praise upon the leadership of Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. [Richard Branson | Solidarity in a time of crisis]

We are fortunate at Galactic to have an extraordinary leader in chief executive officer George Whitesides. His calm, compassion and determination should be a model for any aspiring chief executive; Virgin Galactic’s unwavering focus and culture of teamwork, which George has helped to foster, are the foundations of any strong business.

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Rutan: Pilot Error Most Likely Cause of SpaceShipTwo Crash

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Sir Richard Branson hugs designer Burt Rutan as they are surrounded by employee's of Virgin Galactic, The SpaceShip Company and Scaled Composites watch as Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip2 streaks across the sky under rocket power, its first ever since the program began in 2005. Burt's wife Tonya Rutan is at right taking their photo. The spacecraft was dropped from its "mothership", WhiteKnightTwo over the Mojave, CA area, April 29, 2013 at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. (Credit: Mark Greenberg)

Sir Richard Branson hugs designer Burt Rutan as they are surrounded by employee’s of Virgin Galactic, The SpaceShip Company and Scaled Composites watch as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2 streaks across the sky under rocket power, its first ever since the program began in 2005. Burt’s wife Tonya Rutan is at right taking their photo. The spacecraft was dropped from its “mothership”, WhiteKnightTwo over the Mojave, CA area, April 29, 2013 at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. (Credit: Mark Greenberg)

The Tribune talks to Burt Rutan about the fatal crash of SpaceShipTwo:

Investigators reportedly believe that the test pilot who died in the crash, 39-year-old Mike Alsbury, may have committed an error by unlocking a lever on the craft’s “feathering system” too early. The system is designed to create drag as the space ship descends. Pilot Peter Siebold, 43, parachuted down and suffered injuries.

“We had a fatal accident with a manned spaceship where there was nothing wrong with the spaceship,” Rutan said. “I hope it doesn’t put a damper on things. … This is a blossoming industry.”Rutan said the only thing that makes sense to him about the accident is that during an anxious period, Alsbury may have distractedly performed the task.

“During moments of stress combined with fear, pilots can have a kind of unconscious muscle memory,” Rutan said. “They can do tasks before they’re supposed to. That’s the only thing that makes sense to me.”

Read the full story.

NM Legislators Unimpressed With Anderson’s Presentation on Spaceport America

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WhiteKnightTwo visited Spaceport America for the first time in three years on Wednesday. Below, you can see a full-scale model of SpaceShipTwo on the ramp. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

WhiteKnightTwo visited Spaceport America for the first time in three years on Wednesday. Below, you can see a full-scale model of SpaceShipTwo on the ramp. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

A legislative hearing on Spaceport America on Thursday apparently didn’t go very well:

Members of a legislative finance oversight committee grilled spaceport Executive Director Christine Anderson after she handed them a presentation filled mostly with photographs.

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, of Gallup, the committee’s vice-chairwoman, questioned the business plan and said the point of the meeting was to go over hard numbers and cover how the state should move forward.

Continue reading ‘NM Legislators Unimpressed With Anderson’s Presentation on Spaceport America’

Go Slow Approach Urged in Wake of SpaceShipTwo Accident

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Part of SpaceShipTwo's fuselage. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Part of SpaceShipTwo’s fuselage. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Space News has an editorial on the SpaceShipTwo accident that I think is spot on:

Clearly the AST needs to wait until the NTSB presents the results of its investigation before drafting any such safety rules.

In the same vein, it was surprising to hear that Virgin Galactic intends to continue with construction of a second SpaceShipTwo vehicle with an eye toward resuming test flights in six months. Although the NTSB has raised the possibility that human error played a role in the mishap, it has not ruled out a design or mechanical issue with SpaceShipTwo.

Virgin Galactic is understandably eager to minimize additional delays to the introduction of commercial service and to demonstrate its resolve, but pressing ahead with construction — and perhaps even flight tests — while the investigation is still underway could prove problematic. One could argue that if Virgin Galactic wants to bet on SpaceShipTwo’s exoneration that’s its own business. But in doing so the company risks fueling doubts about the commercial spaceflight industry’s commitment to safety, which could invite the types of regulations it has sought to avoid, or at least defer.

That said, the AST should tread lightly in recognition of the industry’s novelty and fragility. While it can never compromise when it comes to protecting uninvolved third parties, the office also must recognize that those who are willing to pay for the thrill of going to the edge of space are risk takers by both nature and choice — this is not commercial aviation.

It’s not clear to me that Virgin Galactic is in a financial position to slow down. They’re spending an enormous amount on this program, and they don’t really have any solid revenues yet.

Read the full editorial.

Whitesides Vows to Stay the Course, Defends Virgin Galactic’s Approach to Safety

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Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides speaks with current and prospective employees during Virgin Galactic’s recent career fair at Mojave Air and Spaceport in California. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides speaks with current and prospective employees during Virgin Galactic’s recent career fair at Mojave Air and Spaceport in California. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides was down in Los Angeles on Thursday evening participating in a panel about the future of space exploration. He reiterated the company’s pledge to move forward with complete construction of the second SpaceShipTwo and begin testing next year.

Continue reading ‘Whitesides Vows to Stay the Course, Defends Virgin Galactic’s Approach to Safety’

Wall Street Journal Story Adds Details to Virgin Galactic’s Troubles With SpaceShipTwo

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

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

The Wall Street Journal has a good piece on all the problems Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic have had with SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo over the years. It pretty confirms everything I’ve been writing for the last few years, adding some interesting details but getting a few of them wrong.

There were a number of interesting elements here:

The article claims that Sierra Nevada Corporation was brought in by Scaled Composites to develop SpaceShipTwo’s engine  in 2009. That’s not accurate.

Continue reading ‘Wall Street Journal Story Adds Details to Virgin Galactic’s Troubles With SpaceShipTwo’

Spaceport Authority Looks to Other Revenues in Wake of SpaceShipTwo Crash

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WhiteKnightTwo visited Spaceport America for the first time in three years on Wednesday. Below, you can see a full-scale model of SpaceShipTwo on the ramp. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

WhiteKnightTwo visited Spaceport America for the first time in three years on Wednesday. Below, you can see a full-scale model of SpaceShipTwo on the ramp. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) officials are scrambling to attract other tenants to Spaceport America in the wake of the crash of SpaceShipTwo during a test flight on Halloween. The crash has further delayed the start of commercial spaceflights from the desert facility.

The longer it takes Virgin Galactic to launch operations in New Mexico, the more pressure builds on the spaceport authority to generate revenue needed to keep the facility open.

Anderson said during a legislative meeting the day before Virgin Galactic’s testing mishap that the spaceport would face a $1.5 million budget shortfall starting in July if Virgin Galactic didn’t start flying next year.

Continue reading ‘Spaceport Authority Looks to Other Revenues in Wake of SpaceShipTwo Crash’

NTSB Completes On-Scene Portion of SpaceShipTwo Crash Investigation

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Part of SpaceShipTwo's fuselage. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Part of SpaceShipTwo’s fuselage. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

The National Transportation Safety Board issued an investigative update today into the crash of SpaceShip Two on Oct. 31, 2014, in Mojave, Calif.

  • The on-scene portion of the investigation into the crash of Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, a test flight conducted by Scaled Composites, has concluded and all NTSB investigators have returned to Washington, DC.
  • The SpaceShipTwo wreckage has been recovered and is being stored in a secure location for follow-on examination.
  • The NTSB operations and human performance investigators interviewed the surviving pilot on Friday. According to the pilot, he was unaware that the feather system had been unlocked early by the copilot. His description of the vehicle motion was consistent with other data sources in the investigation. He stated that he was extracted from the vehicle as a result of the break-up sequence and unbuckled from his seat at some point before the parachute deployed automatically.
  • Recorded information from telemetry, non-volatile memory, and videos are being processed and validated to assist the investigative groups.
  • An investigative group to further evaluate the vehicle and ground based videos will convene next week at the NTSB Recorders Laboratory in Washington, D.C.
  • The systems group continues to review available data for the vehicle’s systems (flight controls, displays, environmental control, etc.). The group is also reviewing design data for the feather system components and the systems safety documentation.
  • The vehicle performance group continues to examine the aerodynamic and inertial forces that acted on the vehicle during the launch.

The investigation is ongoing. Any future updates will be issued as events warrant. Follow the investigation on Twitter at @ntsb, on our website at ntsb.gov, or sign up to receive NTSB news releases.