The Future Just Ain’t What It Used To Be: Space Tourism Edition

White Knight taxis with SpaceShipOne on June 21, 2004. (Credit: John Criswick)

On this date in 2004, Mike Melvill lit the candle on SpaceShipOne as soared into history as the first astronaut to fly a privately-built spacecraft to space.

Fourteen years. It seems like only a lifetime ago.

I was on the flight line that day (I’m the guy with the video camera) not far from where I write this today.  The excitement and optimism of that day — that feeling that a new era of spaceflight would soon be upon us — was palpable. The future was within our grasp.

The last 14 years have been a lot like the movie, “Groundhog Day.” Not in the sense of the same day being repeated endlessly, but the same old promises being made over and over. And still, space tourism remains just out of our grasp.

What went wrong? It’s a question I’ve pondered as I’ve watched the setbacks and the tragedies unfold here in Mojave. The answer is complex, but in its simplest form it can be summed up as follows:

Although SpaceShipOne winning the Ansari X Prize was an enormously inspiring event, it produced immature and poorly understood technology and bred a dangerous overconfidence in its builders that contributed to two fatal accidents. Government oversight regulations ignored safety lessons learned in decades of human spaceflight.

There are no shortcuts in this business. And the moment you think you’ve got it all figured out is when you need to be most on guard. These are lessons we seem doomed to learn anew over and over again.

As I said, the truth is more complicated. Below are some stories I’ve written over the years exploring what went wrong.

Stories

Finding My Virginity Book Review (Jan. 8-10, 2018)

A Niche in Time Series (Sept. 25 – Oct. 3, 2017)

Pew Poll Show Strong Support for U.S. Space Leadership, Little for Returning Astronauts to Moon

The newly-expanded Expedition 54 crew gathers in the Zvezda service module for ceremonila congratulations from family and mission officials. (Credit: NASA TV)

A new poll by the Pew Research Center showed strong support for maintaining U.S. leadership in space, but little interest in returning astronauts to the moon.

“Roughly seven-in-ten Americans (72%) say it is essential for the U.S. to continue to be a world leader in space exploration, and eight-in-ten (80%) say the space station has been a good investment for the country,” the survey found.

However, only 13 percent felt that sending astronauts back to the moon should be a top NASA priority. Mars came in slightly higher at 18 percent.

(more…)

Pictures from SpaceShipTwo Unity’s Powered Flight Test

SpaceShiptwo Unity soars skyward after being dropped from WhiteKnightTwo on May 26, 2018. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

A picture of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo’s powered flight from the great Ken Brown. Below is my video of the takeoff from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

I was using a new handheld camera so please excuse the shakiness of the video. Below is a picture that Ken snapped of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo as they flew overhead.

WhiteKnightTwo carries SpaceShipTwo Unity to its second powered flight. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Had a bit of a malfunction with the camera, so I didn’t get any video of the actual flight. Sorry about that. Given the camera and the distance involved, I’m not sure I would have picked up that much. But, I’ll try again next time.

New Virgin Galactic Video

Video Caption: The creation of a hybrid rocket motor system for SpaceShipTwo represented a significant engineering challenge. We are particularly proud that we designed and now test and manufacture this world class motor in house. Come meet the team behind the burn…the Rocket Guys.

House Measure Boosts FAA Commercial Space & Spaceport Spending

Mojave Air and Space Port (Credit: Douglas Messier)

The FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA AST) would see its budget more than triple over the next five years while the nation’s spaceports would receive more financial support for infrastructure under a measure passed by the House on Friday.

Under the bill, FAA AST would received just under $22.6 million for fiscal year 2018, with the following increases for the years to follow:

  • FY 2019: $33,038,000
  • FY 2020: $43,500,000
  • FY 2021: $54,970,000
  • FY 2022: $64,449,000
  • FY 2023: $75,938,000.

FAA AST has received only small budget increases in recent years despite experiencing a large increases in its workload as it oversaw the nation’s burgeoning commercial space sector.

Despite the funding stipulated in the reauthorization bill, House and Senate appropriators are not required to fund FAA AST at these levels.

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Saudi Arabia’s Investment in Virgin Includes Hyperloop

Saudi Arabia’s decision to invest $1 billion with an option for $480 million more into the Virgin Group involves not only its three space companies — Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit and The Spaceship Company — but also Virgin Hyperloop One. Vision 2030 is Saudi Arabia’s plan to modernize and diversify its economy away from oil. The kingdom plans to connect its cities and those in adjoining countries via a network of hyperloops.

SpaceShipTwo Unity Completes First Powered Flight

VSS Unity lands back at the Mojave Air and Space Port after its first powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

MOJAVE, Calif. (Virgin Galactic PR) — We are delighted to report on a major step forward for Virgin Galactic today, as SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity safely and successfully completed her first supersonic, rocket-powered flight. After two years of extensive ground and atmospheric testing, the passing of this milestone marks the start of the final portion of Unity’s flight test program.

(more…)

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Powered Flight Set for Thursday Morning

SpaceShipTwo flies under power for the third time in January 2014. (Credit: Ken Brown)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The preliminaries are over. And now the moment of truth has arrived for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Almost 3.5 years after SpaceShipTwo Enterprise broke up during a flight test on Halloween 2014, the company is scheduled to conduct the first powered flight of SpaceShipTwo Unity later this morning from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The test was preceded by seven glide flights.

I’ll be providing live updates on the flight on Twitter @spacecom.

(more…)

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Video

Video Caption: Successful Spaceflight Operations are a result of seamless teamwork in the air, on the ground, and in between. Our Mojave-based Mission Control team measures up to the best in the world. In this video let us take you behind the doors (and screens!) of our control room in the second episode of our Overview Series.

Mojave Gets a Royal Visit

Mojave control tower at sunset. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Mojave is a quiet little town that people don’t visit so much as stop at just long enough for gas, food or a bathroom break. It seems like the only folks who stay overnight have business at the spaceport or are long-haul truckers who are not here for the town’s non-existent nightlife.

So, the arrival of Richard Branson’s private jet — the one with the Virgin Galactic eye on the tail — on Saturday afternoon was quite the surprise. Normally he’s here to watch a test flight of SpaceShipTwo, but there was no sign that one would take place over the long Easter weekend.

The following day, the jet was still parked outside Virgin’s FAITH facility, but it was surrounded by a dozen or more SUVs right there on the ramp. Something was going on over there, but it was hard to know what.

On Monday, we got an answer. The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, was here to see his nation’s latest investment. Last fall, Saudi Arabia signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to invest $1 billion with an option for $480 million more in Branson’s three space companies — Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit and The Spaceship Company.

Photographs of the visit (here and here) show that Saudi Arabia’s symbols now adorn Virgin’s vehicles. The kingdom’s official seal can be seen on SpaceShipTwo’s nose and a model of a hyperloop vehicle for Virgin Hyperloop One. The logo of Vision 2030 — Saudi Arabia’s ambitious effort to diversify its economy away from oil — can be seen on the side of the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.

There was also the following information from a Saudi news report:

And for the first time, Virgin Galactic unveiled new and unique aircraft fuel compartments, in addition to a presentation on spacecraft that will enter commercial services.

The officials reviewed the areas of existing investment partnership, ways of developing them especially in space services, opportunities for deepening cooperation in modern technologies through research, manufacturing, and training Saudi youths, and transforming the Kingdom from a consumer to a producer of technology.

I’m sure we’ll get more information from Virgin soon.

Branson Talks About Space Tourism, Hotels Around the Moon

Video Caption: Billionaire Richard Branson has set up Virgin Galactic as part of his dream to conquer the final frontier. But it’s also a bet that could land him at the forefront of a new business: space tourism.

From the Series: Billionaire Space Club http://bit.ly/2IcWcXA

Editor’s Note: It’s sad the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space remains empty 6.5 years after they dedicated the structure.