A Look at the History of Suborbital Spaceflight

Neil Armstrong with the X-15 on the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

With Richard Branson once again predicting that Virgin Galactic will fly SpaeShipTwo into space before the end of the year, it seems like a good time to take a look at the history of suborbital spaceflight.

The number of manned suborbital flights varies depending upon the definition you use. The internationally recognized boundary is 100 km (62.1 miles), which is also known as the Karman line. The U.S. Air Force awarded astronaut wings to any pilot who exceeded 80.5 km (50 miles).

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Boldly Going Where 14 Men Have Gone Before

For nearly a dozen years, Virgin Galactic has used the number of individuals who have flown into space as a target to shoot for once the company began suborbital space tourism service. Virgin promised to double the number, which was around 500 when the company launched in 2004, within the first year of operation. That year was originally targeted for 2007 in the confident days after the success of SpaceShipOne.

That goal has long since faded away, and it’s unlikely Virgin will double the number of space travelers during the first year. In any event, the number of space travelers cited by Virgin has always been a bit misleading. The company’s well heeled customers, who are paying upwards of $250,000 per flight, will actually be joining a much more elite group on their suborbital flights.

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Remembrance Day, Challenger & NewSpace

The space shuttle Challenger explodes. (Credit: NASA)
The space shuttle Challenger explodes. (Credit: NASA)

“There was ice on the ship,” I said quietly to no one in particular.

I was standing in the hallway at work with some co-workers, watching the space shuttle Challenger explode over and over again on a television in one of the offices.

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Alsbury to be Honored With School Academy

Mike Alsbury
Mike Alsbury

The Lancaster School District has decided to name a new science, technology, engineering, mathematics and arts academy after two Scaled Composites test pilots: Mike Alsbury and Fitzhugh “Fitz” Fulton.

The new school will be called the Fulton & Alsbury Academy of Arts and Engineering.

Alsbury was killed last year when SpaceShipTwo broke up in the sky near Koehn Lake. He joined Scaled Composites in 1998, logging more than 1,000 hours in the Proteus high-altitude aircraft.

Fulton flew experimental aircraft for the U.S. Air Force and NASA, testing the X-1, X-15, XB-70, and YF-12 A and YF-12C. Fulton, who passed away in February, finished his career at Scaled Composites.

Mojave Journal: The Ansari X Prize’s Awkward Family Reunion

Ansari X Prize 10th anniversary panel discussion on Oct. 4, 2014.
Ansari X Prize 10th anniversary panel discussion on Oct. 4, 2014.

One Year Ago, the Ansari X Prize Turned 10
It Was an Uncomfortable Birthday

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The planes kept coming and coming. One after another, they swooped out of a blue desert sky and touched down on the runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port. By mid-morning there were at least a dozen private jets stretched along the flight line running east from the Voyager restaurant toward the control tower. And even more were on their way.

And to what did Mojave owe this ostentatious display of wealth by the 1 percenters? They had come to the sun-splashed spaceport last Oct. 4 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Ansari X Prize. A decade earlier, Burt Rutan and his Paul Allen-funded team had won $10 million for sending the first privately-built manned vehicle into space twice within a two-week period.

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The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be: SpaceShipOne & the Triumph of Hype

Mike Melvill stands atop SpaceShipOne after a suborbital flight on Sept. 29, 2004. (Credit: RenegadeAven)
Mike Melvill stands atop SpaceShipOne after a suborbital flight on Sept. 29, 2004. (Credit: RenegadeAven)

Eleven years ago today, Brian Binnie flew SpaceShipOne to  an altitude  of 112.014 km (69.6 miles),  breaking a record of 107.8 km (67 miles) set by Joe Walker in the X-15 rocket plane 41 years earlier. As Binnie landed the small, experimental space plane at the Mojave Air and Space Port before a cheering crowd, he clinched the $10 million Ansari X Prize for Burt Rutan and his financial backer, Paul Allen.

The air during the post flight events was full of promises, boasts and hopes that today appear positively cringe worthy.

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SpaceShipTwo: Lessons Learned on the Commercial Space Frontier

SpaceShipTwo disintegrates as its two tail booms fall away. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)
SpaceShipTwo disintegrates as its two tail booms fall away. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

SpaceShipTwo had exploded.

At least that’s what it looked like from our vantage point at Jawbone Station on that fateful Halloween morning ten months ago. And that’s what it looked like in Ken Brown’s photos. Ken had been standing next to me, training his telephoto lens on the small spacecraft nine miles overhead.

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Mr. Knight Goes to Washington

State Sen. Steve Knight
Steve Knight

Republican Steve Knight was sworn into Congress today as the new House representative for California’s 25th District, replacing retiring Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon.

Knight, who had been a supporter of the space industry while serving in the California State Senate, has been appointed to the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, whose responsibilities include NASA, FAA and other agencies.

He is also a member of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Small Business Committee.

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Virgin Galactic Turns 10

Virgin Galactic Announced
Virgin Galactic Press Release
Sept. 27, 2004

Sir Richard Branson and Burt Rutan made their announcement to the world’s media that Virgin Galactic was now in a position to commence a programme of work that would result in the world’s first affordable space tourist flights in 2 to 3 years time.

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Mojave Journal: Memorial to a Forgotten Astronaut

Credit: Douglas Messier
Credit: Douglas Messier

If there was a prize for the most isolated memorial to an America astronaut, the one for Maj. Michael J. Adams would win by a wide margin.

From Mojave, it’s a drive of nearly 50 miles through the sagebrush and Joshua trees, around dry Koehn Lake, and through the old mining towns of Randsburg and Johannesburg before you reach the unmarked dirt road leading to the site. A half mile of bad road later, you arrive at the modest but heartfelt memorial to one of America’s forgotten space heroes.

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Branson: I’m Flying to Space By Late Summer

Video Caption: British billionaire [Richard] Branson talks with his typical smile and ultimate optimism. But his body language tells a different story.

Seen at second Dubai Government Summit 2014, February 10.

Editor’s Note: Another sort of firm prediction from the Virgin Galactic founder, delivered in a not very reassuring manner. Branson has been flawless in making inaccurate predictions so far. At some point, he has to be right, but has that time finally arrived?

Maybe. And it depends.

Confused? No problem. I’ll explain. Let’s first look at where things stand here in mid-February to see if this latest schedule makes any sense.

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New Video Series on Commercial Space Activities

Video Caption: We follow certain entrepreneurs, public officials, and private citizens that are actively shaping a new kind of space race, and in the process, redefining what it means to explore the cosmos. This pilot episode of the new monthly web series Private Space, features an interview with California State Sen. Steve Knight, the lead author of California’s Space Flight Liability and Immunity Act.

Learn more about the series on our blog: www.LifeAssembledStudios.com/Blog/
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Virgin Galactic Suddenly Very Chatty About Engine Progress

Newton engine (Credi: Virgin Galactic)
Newton engine (Credi: Virgin Galactic)

The exclusive, multi-platform partnership that Virgin Galactic has forged with NBCUniversal has begun to bear fruit over the past two months. The media giant has signed on to chronicle Sir Richard Branson’s flight aboard SpaceShipTwo and all the events leading up to it.

In November, Sir Richard Branson phoned into CNBC from his Necker Island retreat in the Caribbean to announce that Virgin Galactic would begin accepting the virtual currency Bitcoin for SpaceShipTwo reservations.

A month later, NBC News got into the act, with Science Editor Alan Boyle and a film crew trekking out to Mojave for a powered flight of SpaceShipTwo. They went away disappointed when the test was scrubbed due to a rare patch of bad weather in the High Desert.

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Remembering Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong passed away yesterday at 82. The tributes have been pouring in since the sad news broke. My own encounter with him was brief, but I feel it’s worth sharing.

The only time I saw Neil in person was in February at the Next Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Palo Alto. His appearance there was a surprise. Neil was a very private person who rarely appeared in public. But, there he was, having postponed a European trip to talk about scientific research that he and other pilots had done while flying the X-15 in the 1960’s.

I remember how honored we all felt to be in his presence. Everyone knows Neil as the first man who walked on the moon. But, the X-15 research was another one of his legacies to the world, one that very few people know about. Neil talked about it with evident pride to a new generation of researchers that is taking up where he left off.

It was just a thrill to have him there. I recall that we gave Neil a standing ovation when his talk was over. It is one that the world is repeating this weekend.

Well done, Mr. Armstrong. Rest in peace. And Godspeed.

Edwards AFB Air Show Set for Oct. 17

edwardsftn09EDWARDS AFB PRESS RELEASE

“Flight Test Nation” will make its inaugural flight Oct. 17 as Edwards Air Force Base heralds its test legacy and the 50th anniversary of the X-15 during its open house and air show.

Edwards is unveiling the new air show slogan to honor its long-standing pursuit of performance excellence and the rich aviation heritage it shares with neighbors in Antelope Valley.

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