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.
This interview with Virgin Galactic’s first president, Will Whitehorn, sums up pretty much everything that went wrong with Virgin’s approach to safety as it relates SpaceShipTwo and human spaceflight.
It’s one thing to embrace risk and see it as necessary cost of innovation when you’re dealing with 747’s, passenger trains, cell phones and the myriad other ventures the Virgin Group has pursued. These are mature technologies; most of the technical risks have been ironed out. The main concern is the business will fail and Virgin would lose money.
GLASGOW (Clyde Space PR) — Clyde Space, the pioneering company which designed and manufactured Scotland’s first spacecraft, has announced two major appointments to its management team including the former President of Virgin Galactic.
SANTE FE, NM, Dec. 14, 2005 (Gov. Bill Richardson PR) — Governor Bill Richardson and Sir Richard Branson, Chairman of the Virgin Companies, today announced that Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial space tourism business, will locate its world headquarters and Mission Control in New Mexico. The agreement between the State of New Mexico and Virgin Galactic calls for New Mexico to build a $225 million spaceport in the southern part of the state, on 27- square miles of state land.
If the current schedule holds, Virgin Galactic’s revamped LauncherOne program will enter commercial service sometime in 2018 after roughly a decade of development. During that period, the program has been redefined several times, lost two of the key people hired to lead it, and changed its launch platform from WhiteKnightTwo to a jumbo jet. The estimates for the initial flight tests also have slipped by about four years from 2013 to 2017.
Below is a timeline of the program’s major events, milestones, announcements, hires and departures, and other things. Feel free to let me know if I’ve missed anything significant.
The normally staid Daily Mail has gone all ga ga over a recent proposal to build a spaceport in the United Kingdom. For some odd reason, the sober-minded newspaper seems particularly excited by visions of Britain becoming a mecca for glamorous celebrities flying into space aboard Sir Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo.
It’s an alluring vision for the future — one that has already captivated people in numerous places in the United States and elsewhere, who all want spaceports of their own. As with many alluring visions, however, reality is not nearly as attractive.
Former Virgin Galactic chief Will Whitehorn is focusing on transportation of a more Earthly kind. He will join Stagecoach Group plc. as a non-executive directorÂ beginning May 1. Whitehorn will replace Sir George Mathewson as a member of the Remuneration Committee and serve on the Nomination Committee.
Below is Virgin Galactic’s official press release announcing Will Whitehorn’s departure from the company. With traveling and the holidays, I overlooked it until now.
VIRGIN GALACTIC PRESS RELEASE Dec. 23, 2010
Will Whitehorn, President of Virgin Galactic since the formation of the company in 2004, is to retire from that role in January 2011. George Whitesides, who was appointed as the first full time CEO in May 2010, assumes the title of President and CEO.
The Guardian reports that Virgin Galactic’s Will Whitehorn was “hopping mad” over a recent study indicating that SpaceShipTwo might not be as clean as the company claims:
“The research was fundamentally wrong,” he says. “If you had a Virgin Galactic program running for ten years, if you assumed that we weren’t using biobutinol (which we will) we’re talking about less environmental impact over ten years than 1.5 shuttle launches.”
Private SpaceShipTwo Heads for New Territory Space.com
Whitehorn said more SpaceShipTwo glide tests are in the offing. Those tests will include a high-altitude drop of the craft that will allow the pilots to feather and unfeather the SpaceShipTwo’s novel, care-free tail section used during the fall back into Earth’s atmosphere. This configuration allows a “hands-off” re-entry to Earth and greatly reduces aerodynamic and thermal loads on the craft.
These tests will be followed by attachment of the spaceplane’s hybrid rocket motor.
“There will be very short firings of the motor, and then we’ll extend those burns and we’ll start climbing into space,” Whitehorn told SPACE.com. “I think we can pretty safely say now that we’ll be in space in 2011. It’s taken a little bit longer. But the point is that it has been done safely.”
Budget Space Travel with Virgin Edinburgh Napier News
Whitehorn delivered a lecture to an audience at Edinburgh Napier University this week on the Virgin Galactic project in which he reassured listeners that the cost of a ticket is expected to drop gradually to just $90,000 per person…
Rocket Man Arabian Business Richard Branson has been on the receiving end of a fair few jokes in his time. One of the more memorable was in 2000, when British satirical magazine Private Eye ran a front cover of the entrepreneur dressed as Santa Claus with the caption; â€˜No-one believes in you anymore.’
Virgin Trains, his railway operation, was coming under fire for its shocking time-keeping record and Branson himself had just made a failed bid for the franchise of the UK’s National Lottery.