FAA Examination of Blue Origin Safety Issues Likely to be Very Narrow

New Shepard launch (Credit: Blue Origin webcast)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has said it will examine safety issues about Blue Origin’s crewed suborbital New Shepard vehicle raised by a group of current and former employees in an open letter published on Thursday.

The announcement comes 11 days before four paying customers, one reported to be Star Trek star William Shatner, are scheduled to board New Shepard for a trip to space. While a federal safety review might sound reassuring to these ticket holders, what does it actually mean in practice?

Probably not much.

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Report: Branson’s Flight into Space Experienced Serious Anomaly; Company Fired Flight Test Director

Richard Branson and other passengers float around in weightlessness. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

By all appearances, Richard Branson’s 17-years-in-the-making flight to the edge of space went exactly as planned on July 11. Or at least that was the impression left by Virgin Galactic’s webcast of SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity’s flight test from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

But, for the second time in four suborbital flights, VSS Unity experienced a serious anomaly. The ship with its hybrid engine firing wasn’t rising steeply enough as it soared toward space, Nicholas Schmidle reports in The New Yorker:

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“Test God” Out as Virgin Galactic’s Director of Flight Test

Well, one day you’re a “God,” the next day you’re on the unemployment line.

Such was fate of Mark Stucky, who was Virgin Galactic’s lead pilot and director of flight test. On Tuesday, he announced on his Linkedin page that he had left the position. When asked why, he replied,

“Departing a company not on my own timeline was a first for me.”

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Breaking Down Virgin Galactic’s Latest Flight Test

Take me out to the black,
Tell them I ain’t comin’ back.
Burn the land and boil the sea,
You can’t take the sky from me….

— “The Ballad of Serenity,” Sonny Rhodes

“After so many years and so much hard work, New Mexico has finally reached the stars.”

— New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

By now, you’ve probably read the rhetoric flourishes in Virgin Galactic’s press release about the company’s first suborbital flight test in more than two years that was conducted on Saturday. Suffice to say, if the stars were located at the altitude that SpaceShipTwo actually reached (55.45 miles/89.2 km), they would take the sky away at the same time they burned the land and boiled the seas. Being suborbital, VSS Unity wouldn’t have helped anyone escape the inferno.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen. So, let’s just put doomsday out of our minds. It’s time to break down what the flight test accomplished, what comes next, and why 27 months passed between powered flights. And what about Jeff Bezos?

Ready? Let’s go!

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Book: Virgin Galactic’s President Moses Believed Company’s Flight Projections were a “Pipe Dream”

Richard Branson’s space tourism company used similar numbers to go public on the New York Stock Exchange. Were investors duped?
Michael Moses

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Nicholas Schmidle’s book about Virgin Galactic and SpaceShipTwo is coming out on Tuesday. In an essay he wrote for The New York Times, he recounted how Virgin Galactic President Michael Moses didn’t believe the company’s own flight projections when they were presented to him by its then-chief financial officer.

At one point, I was leaked a cache of internal documents. Some revealed the depth of Virgin Galactic’s oftentimes shaky grip on reality.

In 2013, Mike Moses, at the time Virgin Galactic’s senior vice president for operations, was sent an email containing a chart from Virgin Galactic’s chief financial officer at the time, Ken Sunshine. The chart showed a radical uptick in flight operations, projecting 75 flights in 2015, 194 in 2016, 229 in 2017 and 264 in 2018. “No chance in hell,” replied Mr. Moses, who is Beth’s husband. “These numbers are a pipe dream.” (Mr. Moses, through a representative, declined to comment on those emails.)

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Virgin Galactic Stock Plunges as Company Delays Space Tourism Flights to 2022

SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity arrives at Spaceport America aboard WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Shares of Virgin Galactic plunged sharply on Thursday as the company announced that it was postponing the start of commercial suborbital space tourism flights until 2022 due to additional delays in completing SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity‘s test program.

Shares plunged in after hours trading to $36.69 after opening the day at $45.04. Most of the decline occurred in after hours trading following the release of Virgin Galactic quarterly and full year 2020 earning report.

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As Virgin Galactic Crew Celebrated Second Suborbital Flight, Problems Loomed Behind the Scenes

Chief Pilot David Mackay celebrates a successful flight with champagne as Chief Astronaut Beth Moses looks on. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Newly arrived back on Earth after a quick visit to space, Virgin Galactic Chief Astronaut Beth Moses was effusive as she described the suborbital flight she had just taken aboard the company’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, VSS Unity.

“Richard, you’re going to love it!” she told Virgin Chairman Richard Branson, who had remotely monitored the Feb. 22, 2019 flight that had taken place over California’s Mojave Desert.

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Virgin Galactic Looks on the Bright Side After Launch Abort

WhiteKnightTwo takes off with SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity from Spaceport America in New Mexico. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

It was a flight 22 months in the making. But, when it came time for the rubber to meet the oxidizer, the whole thing suddenly flamed out.

The hybrid engine on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity failed to fire properly on Saturday, sending the suborbital rocket plane, pilots David Mackay and C.J. Sturckow and a load of NASA-sponsored experiments into a rapid descent and landing back at Spaceport America, instead of a graceful parabolic arc into suborbital space.

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Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo Conducts Flight Test on Eve of Earnings Call

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

One week before Virgin Galactic is expected to report another large quarterly loss, the company’s WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve took to the skies on Thursday over Spaceport America for the first time since June 25.

The flight was the first of four tests designed to pave the way for Virgin Galactic to begin commercial SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism flights with VSS Unity during the first quarter of next year.

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Virgin Galactic Stock Price Declines, Commercial Flights Scheduled for Next Year

New SpaceShipTwo reaches weight on wheels milestone. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Galactic’s stock decline in extended trading after Sir Richard Branson’s spaceline reported second quarter earnings.

The stock closed on Monday at $24.02 after rising $1.57 (6.99%). In after-hours trading, the stock declined to $22.23, a decrease of $1.79 (-7.45%).

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Virgin Galactic Stock Goes Up Again (After Going Way Down)

Sir Richard Branson and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson in front of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo during the Spaceport America runway dedication ceremony in October 2010. The spaceport still awaits its first suborbital flight. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Galactic’s wild roller coaster ride on Wall Street continued over the past week as Richard Branson’s spaceline marked five months as a publicly traded company and 13 months since the last launch of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism vehicle.

Since debuting on the New York Stock Exchange at $12 last Oct. 28, the stock soared to a high of $42.49 on Feb. 20 before sinking to $10.49 on March 19. Over the past week, the stock has risen again; it reached $14.68 in after-hours trading on Monday.

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Blast From the Past: Suborbital Human Spaceflights by March 2009

March 2007

Virgin Galactic Founder predicts SpaceShipTwo would be ready to fly in 12 months. A year after that — March 2009 — the vehicle would begin commercial suborbital space flights.

The reality is that in 2007 they didn’t have an engine capable of firing for the one minute needed to send SpaceShipTwo above 50 miles. They weren’t even close to having one. It would take another 7.5 years to develop one they would even risk firing for more than 20 seconds in flight.

SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise was destroyed on Oct. 31, 2014 during the flight during which they were supposed to test that engine. That accident set the program back by another five years.

NASA to Fund Researchers to Fly on Suborbital Vehicles, Maybe Astronauts

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

After spending a few years in hibernation, the Next-generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC) is being held in Colorado this week. I wasn’t able to attend this year, but I’ve been following all the action on Twitter.

In a keynote address on Monday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine floated the idea of letting the space agency’s astronauts fly aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicles. He also discussed certifying the systems to comply with a subset of NASA’s human ratings requirements.

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Virgin Galactic Begins End Game as SpaceShipTwo Unity Relocated to New Mexico

SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity arrives at Spaceport America aboard WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Four years after it was first rolled out, Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity left the Mojave Air and Space Port in California on Thursday for its new home at in New Mexico, where it will undergo final flight testing and preparation for commercial suborbital space flights.

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