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.

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A Look Back at the Space Year That Was

Total solar eclipse photographed from NASA Armstrong’s Gulfstream III. (Credit: (NASA/Carla Thomas)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

I realize it’s a bit late, but here’s a look back at the major developments in space in 2017.

I know that I’m probably forgetting something, or several somethings or someones. Fortunately, I have eagle-eyed readers who really seem to enjoy telling me just how much I’ve screwed up. Some of them a little too much….

So, have at it!  Do your worst, eagle-eyed readers!

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Branson’s Autobiography: After SpaceShipTwo’s Loss the Blame Game Began

Nitrous oxide and cabin atmosphere vent from the disintegrating SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: MARS Scientific/NTSB)

Part 3 of 3

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Finding My Virginity: The New Autobiography
Richard Branson
Portfolio
Oct. 10, 2017
482 pages

On the morning of Oct. 31, 2014, a nightmarish vision that had haunted me for months became a real-life disaster in the skies over the Mojave Desert. SpaceShipTwo dropped from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship, lit its engine and appeared to explode. Pieces of the space plane then began to rain down all over the desert.

The motor had exploded. Or the nitrous oxide tank had burst. At least that’s what I and two photographers – whose pictures of the accident would soon be seen around the world – thought had occurred as we watched the flight from Jawbone Station about 20 miles north of Mojave.

We really believed we had seen and heard a blast nine miles overhead, the photos appeared to show one, and it was the most plausible explanation at the time.

We were wrong. More than two days after the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) revealed that co-pilot Mike Alsbury had prematurely unlocked SpaceShipTwo’s feather system during powered ascent. The ship hadn’t blown up, it had broken up as the twin tail booms reconfigured the vehicle with the engine still burning at full thrust.
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Branson’s Autobiography Part II: A Bad Day at Koehn Lake

SpaceShipTwo breaks up after the premature deployment of its feather system. (Credit: MARS Scientific/NTSB)

Part 2 of 3

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Finding My Virginity: The New Autobiography
Richard Branson
Portfolio
Oct. 10, 2017
482 pages

In his new book, Richard Branson recounts that on the morning of Oct. 31, 2014, he was on his private Caribbean island in a state of “schoolboy excitement.” The reason? Three time zones away in California’s Mojave Desert, Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites were conducting the longest and most ambitious flight test of the SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism vehicle.

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Richard Branson’s Latest Memoir Gets Lost in Space

SpaceShipTwo Enterprise after being released for its final flight on Oct. 31, 2014. (Credit: Virgin Galactic/NTSB)

Mogul’s Account of Virgin Galactic Most Revealing for What It Doesn’t Say

Part 1 of 3

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Finding My Virginity: The New Autobiography
Richard Branson
Portfolio
Oct. 10, 2017
482 pages

One day in mid-2003, Virgin Atlantic pilot Alex Tai wandered into a hangar at Mojave Airport and discovered SpaceShipOne, a  suborbital rocket plane that Scaled Composites’ Founder Burt Rutan was secretly building to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize for the first privately-built crewed vehicle to reach space twice in two weeks.

The chance discovery would eventually solve separate problems the famed aircraft designer and Tai’s boss, Richard Branson, were trying to solve. Rutan’s spaceship was being funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, who wanted to win the prize but had no plans to finance a commercial follow-on spacecraft.

Four years earlier, Branson had registered a new company named Virgin Galactic Airways and set off in search of someone to build a vehicle capable of carrying passengers into space. Those efforts had come to naught until Tai made his discovery at the dusty airport in California’s High Desert.

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Richard Branson Accused of Sexual Assault by Joss Stone Backup Singer

Richard Branson at Spaceport America (Credit: Douglas Messier)

One of Joss Stone’s backup singers, Antonia Jenae, has accused Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson of “sexual assault” in an incident she says occurred on the billionaire’s private Caribbean island in 2010.

“We were in the pool and there was a big, beautiful statue of a goddess there with her boobs out.

“Richard Branson tried to get me to show him my boobs and I said: ‘No!’ I was wearing a one-piece swimsuit and at the time I was very heavy chested.”

[….]

Mum-of-two Antonia said: “We were by the bar and he was saying bye to everyone. He came up to me and put his face in my breasts.
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FastFacts: Public-Sector Financial Support for Richard Branson’s Space Companies

Four big thumbs up from Richard Branson and then New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson at the Spaceport America runway dedication in 2010. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

The nonbinding memorandum of understanding involving $1 billion in investment from Saudi Arabia is Richard Branson’s latest success in obtaining financial support from governments for his Virgin Group’s space companies.

The table below shows funding invested directly into the group’s space ventures and indirectly for infrastructure.

VIRGIN GROUP SPACE COMPANIES — DIRECT & INDIRECT GOVERNMENT INVESTMENT
YEARGOVERNMENT
AMOUNT (MILLIONS)
PURPOSE
2006New Mexico~$225 Custom built spaceport named Spaceport America constructed on 18,000 acres of land — Virgin Galactic signed 20 year lease to serve as anchor tenant
2009Abu Dhabi $280Government-owned sovereign wealth fund Aabar Investments obtained 31.6 percent share of Virgin Galactic — plans for a spaceport where SpaceShipTwo would fly in Dubai — future commitment of $100 million more when Virgin Galactic developed viable plan for small-satellite booster (LauncherOne)
2011 Abu Dhabi $110Aabar Investments increased share of Virgin Galactic to 37.6 percent
2017Saudi Arabia$1,000Under non-binding MOU, government-run Public Investment Fund (PIC) would obtain undisclosed share of three Virgin Group space companies: Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit and The Spaceship Company — Virgin Group  to maintain majority ownership
 TOTAL: $1,615
 Future Saudi Arabia $480PIC has an option to invest nearly a half-billion more in Virgin Group space services
 TOTAL:$2,095

Virgin Group, Saudi Arabia Sign MOU for $1 Billion Space Investment

LauncherOne ignites after being released from Cosmic Girl 747. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, October 26, 2017 — The Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia and Virgin Group (Virgin), have signed a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for a partnership under which PIF intends to invest approximately $1 billion into Virgin Galactic, The Spaceship Company and Virgin Orbit, with an option for $480 million of future additional investment in space services.

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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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Entrepreneurial Lingo Lesson: The Pivot

twist_chubby1_disrupt copy
First in an irregular series on entrepreneurial buzz words

Come on let’s pivot again,
Like we did last quarter!
Yeaaah, let’s pivot again,
Like we did last year!

Do you remember when,
ROI was really hummin’,
Yeaaaah, let’s pivot again,
Pivotin’ time is here!

Heeee, and round and round til IPO we go!
Oh, baby, make those investors love us so!

Let’s pivot again,
Like we did last quarter!
Yeaaah, let’s pivot again,
Like we did last year!

There comes a time in the existence of many startups when there an urgent need to change direction. You set up the company to pursue a goal, but for one reason or several — a lack of a market, shortage of investment, regulatory hurdles, a flawed concept — you have to direct all that talent, technology and enthusiasm toward a new objective that will keep the company in operation.

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Experts: FAA Review Process for SpaceShipTwo Flawed, Subject to Political Pressure

SpaceShipTwo fuselage (Credit: NTSB)
SpaceShipTwo fuselage (Credit: NTSB)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The Federal Aviation Administration issued an experimental permit to Scaled Composites to begin flight tests of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo in 2012 despite serious deficiencies in the company’s application relating to safety analysis and risk mitigation, according to documents released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) this week.

When renewing the annual permit in 2013 and 2014, the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA AST) issued waivers that exempted Scaled Composites from explaining how it evaluated and planned to mitigate against human and software errors that could cause a fatal accident.

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Virgin Galactic Focused on Larger Satellite Launch Vehicle

Artist's conception of WhiteKnightTwo with LauncherOne (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Artist’s conception of WhiteKnightTwo with LauncherOne (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Galactic is developing a rocket more powerful than LauncherOne to fulfill a recent order for 39 launches from its global satellite Internet partner OneWeb, according to sources familiar with the program.

LauncherTwo will use Virgin Galactic’s largest liquid fuel engine, NewtonThree, in its first stage, according to sources that insisted upon anonymity. A new engine, NewtonFour, will be developed for the second stage.

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One Web Announces $500 Million Funding Round, Launch Contracts for Soyuz, LauncherOne

OneWeb constellation. (Credit: Airbus Defence & Space)
OneWeb constellation. (Credit: Airbus Defence & Space)

Highlights

  • OneWeb announces $500 million funding round for 900 satellite constellation
  • Backers include Airbus Group, Coca-Cola, Intelsat, Qualcomm, Hughes Network Systems and Virgin Galactic
  • Largest commercial rocket order ever includes 21 Soyuz launchers and 39 launches of Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne

LONDON (OneWeb PR) — OneWeb, which is building a new global communications system to create affordable broadband services for all, today announces it has raised $500 million of funding from a group of leading international companies.

OneWeb has attracted investment from Airbus Group, Bharti Enterprises, Hughes Network Systems, (Hughes), a subsidiary of EchoStar Corp., Intelsat, Qualcomm Incorporated, The Coca-Cola Company, the Virgin Group, and Totalplay, a Grupo Salinas Company, owned by Ricardo B. Salinas.

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Branson: Virgin Galactic Costing Lots of Money

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)

Richard Branson has suggested that Virgin Galactic’s burn rate is $14 million per month (according to an interview with The Independent) or $15 million or month (according to The Express). That would put annual expenses at between $168 and $180 million.

If that’s the burn rate, it will go up quite a bit when flight testing resumes on SpaceShipTwo. Powered flights of the vehicle are reported to cost close to $1 million apiece.

Branson also says he’s trying to raise $400 million for OneWeb, the global satellite Internet program headed by Greg Wyler.  The Virgin Group is an investor in the company and plans to launch a portion of the 900 plus satellites in the constellation with its LauncherOne rocket.

Number of Billionaires Investing in Space Projects Grows

Forbes has published its annual list of the planet’s billionaires. A small but growing number of them are either directly supporting major space projects or doing so through the companies that they run.

FORBES RANKNAMEAGE
2015 NET WORTH (BILLIONS)
SOURCE(S) OF WEALTH
SPACE INVESTMENT(S)
 15Jeff Bezos51 $34.8Amazon.comBlue Origin
16Mark Zuckerberg30
 $33.4FacebookGlobal satellite network
19Larry Page41$29.7 GoogleSpaceX, Planetary Resources, Planetary Ventures, Google Lunar X Prize, Skybox
20Sergey Brin 41 $29.2GoogleSpaceX, Planetary Ventures, Google Lunar X Prize, Skybox
43Charles Ergen62$19.8DISH NetworkDISH Network
51Paul Allen62 $17.5 Microsoft, investmentsStratolaunch Systems, SETI, Mojave Aerospace Ventures (SpaceShipOne)
100Elon Musk43$12PayPal, Tesla Motors, SpaceX, SolarCitySpaceX
137Eric Schmidt59$9.1GoogleSpaceX, Google Lunar X Prize, Planetary Ventures, Skybox
330Richard Branson
64$4.8Virgin GroupVirgin Galactic, Planetary Resources, OneWeb
1006Kavitark Ram Shriram58$1.9Google, venture capitalPlanetary Resources
1105H. Ross Perot, Jr.56$1.8 Computer services, real estatePlanetary Resources
1324Charles Simonyi 67$1.4MicrosoftPlanetary Resources
1415Peter Sperling55$1.3University of PhoenixEcliptic Enterprises

I’ve added Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook to the list this year. His company is reportedly working on a global broadband network that would involve satellites, although details of the plan have not been made public.

I’ve left off Cirque du Soleil’s Guy Laliberte, who came in at number 1006 with a net worth of $1.9 billion. Although he once took a trip to the International Space Station, he is not known to be funding any major space projects at the moment.

Update: I’ve added Charles Ergen and Peter Sperling to the list. Big shout out to Rex Ridenoure over at Ecliptic Enterprises.