Tag Archives: spaceshiptwo

One Chute

Part 4 of Doug Messier’s series on commercial space history, A Niche in Time, is now available. It is entitled “One Chute” and focuses on the long and sad history of Virgin Galactic.

One new detail that Messier notes struck me:

At the time of the accident, Virgin Galactic had about 700 customers signed up to fly on SpaceShipTwo. Officials now say the number is around 650. Assuming full ships with six passengers aboard, Virgin Galactic would need 109 flights just to fly out its current manifest. The figure doesn’t include flight tests and missions filled with microgravity experiments. That’s a lot of launches to make without expecting at least one catastrophic failure, possibly involving prominent wealthy passengers.

It increasingly appears that this will be a total loss for the investors who poured money into Virgin Galactic.

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Suborbital promises

Capitalism in space: Two stories today highlight the contrasts that presently exist within the still unborn suborbital tourist industry:

In the first, Richard Branson made another one of his bold predictions, the same kind of prediction he has been making about Virgin Galactic now for almost a decade. Again and again he claims, based on nothing, that his spaceship will be carrying people into orbit in mere months. It never happens. It won’t happen here.

In the second, Jeff Bezos announces that he hopes to fly people on his New Shepard suborbital spacecraft by 2018, but at the same time he also announces that the program is delayed.

Bezos, speaking in front of the company’s exhibit at the 33rd Space Symposium here that features the New Shepard propulsion module that flew five suborbital spaceflights in 2015 and 2016, backed away from earlier statements that called for flying people on test flights later this year. “We’re going to go through the test program, and we’ll put humans on it when we’re happy,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be 2017 at this point. It could be.”

Bezos has been very careful, from the beginning, to make no bold or specific predictions about when his spacecraft will fly manned. Here, he is once again making it clear that any previously announced schedules were very tentative, and should not be taken too seriously.

Which person would you trust with your life on a suborbital flight?

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Virgin Galactic spins off LauncherOne into its own division

The competition heats up: Virgin Galactic this week spun off its LauncherOne smallsat orbital rocket to form a new company called Virgin Orbit.

This split highlights the competition that actually existed within Virgin Galactic. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo remains a very questionable design. Rather than have its problems suck the profits from LauncherOne, which has contracts and I firmly believe will fly first, the Virgin corporation has pulled it from Virgin Galactic so that the two rockets can succeed or fail on their own. In the end, I suspect now that Virgin Galactic will die and Virgin Orbit will succeed.

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Unity successfully completes its first glide flight

Virgin Galactic’s second SpaceShipTwo, Unity, yesterday successfully completed its first glide test flight.

SpaceShipTwo, named VSS Unity, and its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California at about 9:50 a.m. Eastern. The spaceplane separated from WhiteKnightTwo at 10:40 a.m. Eastern, gliding back to a runway landing in Mojave ten minutes later, according to updates provided by the company.

Congratulations to Virgin Galactic. They need to start making these flights quickly and frequently, and they need to ramp up to powered flight, to quash the skepticism that has built up about the company and its effort. More important, they need to do this because, unlike a decade ago, they are no longer the only game in town. They now have some serious competition.

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Virgin Galactic releases Unity test flight program

In a change from the company’s past policy, which made many promises but never revealed their upcoming schedule in any detail, Virgin Galactic today released their planned test schedule for their new Unity spacecraft.

This test will be the first of a sequence of glide test flights. These flights will cumulatively allow us to test and prove the performance of the vehicle in a variety of conditions: both heavy (e.g. simulating the full weight of a load of fuel, oxidizer, and people) and light (with empty tanks) and in between, at a variety of flight path angles and airspeeds, and so forth. This testing of the “corners of the box” is designed to demonstrate how VSS Unity will perform as it returns from space, after the feather system is retracted and the vehicle becomes a glider and lands on the runway like an airplane. In addition, this phase of flight will also demonstrate and test our abort modes – which culminate in a safe glide back to the runway.

Our team of flight test experts has developed a set of requirements for each planned test flight as well as detailing exactly what we need to test in order to be ready to proceed to the next phase of rocket powered flights. We will fly as many flights as we need to in order to achieve all these objectives.

The schedule, quite properly, does not include any dates. In the past the company and Richard Branson, would make many grand promises about when their test program would be completed without providing any details of what they planned to do during that test program. This time, Branson is quiet, they have announced no schedule dates, but have provided good information about the test program itself. This is a very good change.

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Virgin Galactic to begin glide tests of Unity

Virgin Galactic will begin the first glide tests of its new SpaceShipTwo, Unity, this week.

Virgin Galactic test pilot CJ Sturckow, speaking at a “Space Stories” event at The Explorers Club here Oct. 29, said the company has scheduled the first glide flight of the vehicle, named VSS Unity, on Nov. 1. That flight would come after a single “captive carry” test flight of the vehicle in September, when the vehicle remained attached to its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft for its entire flight. “It’s ready to fly, and I’m really looking forward to seeing that,” he said of SpaceShipTwo’s upcoming glide flight.

That glide flight will be the first time VSS Unity has flown on its own, and will be the first in a series of glide flights before Virgin Galactic installs a hybrid rocket motor for powered flight tests.

According to the article, the new rocket motor has successfully completed several long duration test firings.

Virgin Galactic is running out of time. Their competition, Blue Origin, appears much closer to flying passengers.

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First test captive carry flight for Unity

The competition heats up: Virgin Galactic today completed its first test flight of its new SpaceShipTwo, Unity, flying it mated to WhiteKnightTwo for almost four hours.

Congratulations to Virgin Galactic! Still, it remains to be seen whether they can get this ship tested and capable of commercial flights fast enough to beat their competition, competition that did not exist when they started their business more than a decade ago.

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Virgin Galactic unveils new SpaceShipTwo

The competition heats up: On Friday Virgin Galactic unveiled their replacement SpaceShipTwo, dubbed Unity, replacing the first ship destroyed 16 months ago during a failed flight test.

As is typical of Virgin Galactic, they managed to garner a lot of press coverage of this event. To me, it is a big big yawn. I want to see this ship flying, not towed out from a hanger by an SUV with Richard Branson waving to the crowd.

And until they do, I will consider everything Virgin Galactic does at this point to me nothing more than empty public relations bull.

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Former Virgin Galactic employee battles company in court

A former employee of Virgin Galactic, in a arbitration dispute, has accused the company of lying about its spacecraft’s safety and performance.

Virgin Galactic’s former vice president of propulsion, Thomas Markusic, has accused Richard Branson’s space company of lying about the safety and performance of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism vehicle. “Dr. Markusic was forced to separate from VG [Virgin Galactic] because the company was defrauding the public about the ability of the vehicles to reach space and was utilizing rocket engine technologies that have a high probability of causing catastrophic failure and loss of life,” according to the document. “VG directed Dr. Markusic to lie to customers about the performance and safety of the company’s hybrid rocket technology,” the document continues. “VG asserts that Dr. Markusic secretly plotted to start his own rocket company and exploited his position at VG; whereas, in reality, Dr. Markusic’s conscience forced him to to leave.”

Read the whole thing. It appears Markusic left Virgin Galactic to form his own company, and in doing so might have violated an anti-competition clause in his contract, resulting in the arbitration dispute. At the same time, his accusations ring true, considering these rumors had been flying about at the time and have since been more or less confirmed.

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Musk vs Bezos vs Branson

The competition heats up: Two stories today highlight the entertaining and totally beneficial space race that now exists between private American space companies, instigated by SpaceX’s successful vertical landing of its Falcon 9 first stage.

The first is a Popular Mechanics post showing two graphics comparing the flights of Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket with Falcon 9’s first stage.

As they correctly note,

Both companies did a big thing and deserve accolades for it. The race is on to bring on true reusability, which has the potential to drive down the cost of space launches if done correctly. But Jeff Bezos is working with a rocket barely the size of the engine of the Falcon 9 first stage. For suborbital flight, Bezos did a big thing. For orbital flight, SpaceX did an even bigger thing. In suborbital flight, Bezos may have beat SpaceX’s Grasshopper rocket to a full suborbital flight and return, but he isn’t ready to fly with the Falcon yet.

Blue Origin is posed to become SpaceX’s biggest competitor, but they clearly are behind in the race and will need to do a lot to catch up.

The second article is an excellent essay by Doug Messier at Parabolic Arc noting that at this stage the race isn’t really between Musk and Bezos but between Bezos and Richard Branson.

Messier notes that Bezos’ New Shepard rocket is built to sell tickets to tourists on suborbital flights. He is not competing with SpaceX’s orbital business but with Richard Branson’s space tourism business at Virgin Galactic. And more significantly, it appears that despite a ten year head start, Richard Branson appears to be losing that race, and badly.

Not only that, but while SpaceShipTwo is essentially a deadend, capable only of suborbital tourism, Bezos’s New Shepard was designed to be upgraded to an orbital ship and rocket. Once they chaulk up some suborbital ticket sales and some actual flights, something they seem posed to do in the next two years, they will likely then begin moving into the orbital field. They will then leave Virgin Galactic far behind.

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Richard Branson makes another prediction!

Promises, promises! Richard Branson today predicted that Virgin Galactic’s second SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane will begin flight tests in February 2016.

Forgive me if I am extremely skeptical. Branson has been making these kinds of promises now for more than a decade, none of which has come even close to coming true. I note this new prediction here merely to point out how bad his past predictions have been. Nowadays, I only believe Virgin Galactic is going to fly after they have do so.

Posted from Tucson International Airport, on the way to Mexico City for a week of sightseeing.

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Next New Shepard test flight expected before December

The competition heats up: Blue Origins has revealed that the next test flight of its suborbital New Shepard capsule and launch rocket will take place before the end of 2015.

They also noted that they will not be selling any tickets for suborbital flights for at least two more years, until they are satisfied that the test flights have proven the system. This is a far cry from other suborbital companies like Virgin Galactic and XCOR, who have made big promises to garner ticket sales, and have yet to deliver. Jeff Bezos’s company has instead decided to deliver first, and then sell tickets.

In the end, we shall see who wins the race to put the first tourists into space. What is certain in all this however is that Virgin Galactic has squandered the ten-year headstart it had when it started out in 2004.

In related news, Virgin Galactic says that construction of its second SpaceShipTwo ship is progressing well.

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SpaceShipTwo accident report released

The National Transportation Safety Board today released the results of its investigation into last year’s SpaceShipTwo crash, concluding that the accident was caused by pilot error combined with the failure of the ship’s designers to include systems that could have prevented that error.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded Tuesday that the developer of a commercial spacecraft that broke apart over the Mojave Desert last year failed to protect against the possibility of human error, specifically the co-pilot’s premature unlocking of a braking system that triggered the in-flight breakup of the vehicle.

In its recommendation, the board took pains to make clear that Scaled Composites, an aerospace company that has partnered with Virgin Galactic to develop the spacecraft, should have had systems in place to overcome the co-pilot’s mistake. NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said he didn’t believe the company took shortcuts that compromised the spacecraft’s safety. Rather, he said, it didn’t consider that the crew would make such a mistake. “The assumption was these highly trained test pilots would not make mistakes in those areas, but truth be told, humans are humans,” Hart said after the hearing’s conclusion. “And even the best-trained human on their best day can make mistakes.”

This really isn’t news. This was the conclusion reached only weeks after the accident. It also does little to ease the problems at Virgin Galactic.

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SpaceShipTwo debris from crash almost hit two truck drivers

Immediately after SpaceShipTwo crashed Doug Messier happened to come upon the cockpit crash site where he interviewed two drivers who had just passed each other when the debris hit the road behind them.

The odds of such a thing happening are gigantic, but obviously not zero.

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New flights from SpaceShipTwo will likely not happen for years

In the heat of competition: A variety of unnamed sources are saying that Virgin Galactic’s new SpaceShipTwo will will likely not fly for years.

This quote is especially telling:

As to when that commercial service might actually be ready, one former Virgin Galactic employee told Newsnight: “I can’t say whether it will be two years or whether it will be five… They have a huge, huge, way to go.”

So is this quote from Doug Messier, quoted in the article:

“This program’s claimed four lives already and it’s had four powered flights and they haven’t gotten anywhere near space in 10 years.”

When summed up, as Messier does, Virgin Galactic’s effort sure sounds disappointing, doesn’t it?

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Indecision at Virgin Galactic over engine design

In the heat of competition: Sources at Virgin Galactic suggest that the company has still not made up its mind on the type of engine it will use on SpaceShipTwo.

Messier sums up the situation perfectly:

The lack of clarity about SpaceShipTwo’s main propulsion system is highly unusual. It’s difficult if not impossible to think of another space project that was uncertain about its primary propulsion system after nearly a decade of development.

Increasingly I do not see this spaceship ever flying, which saddens me. They had a ten year head start over everyone else, and have squandered it.

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Virgin Galactic test flights to resume in 2015?

I’ll believe it when I see it: The executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, which runs Spaceport America, said Tuesday that she hopes Virgin Galactic will resume test flights of a SpaceShipTwo suborbital ship sometime in 2015, with commercial flights beginning in 2016.

She claimed that work on the new ship is about 80% completed, with construction of another ship also underway.

Forgive me if I have my doubts. Virgin Galactic has spent more than a decade making these promises, with no results.

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New Mexico legislature advances spaceport sale bill

A state bill to sell Spaceport America, New Mexico’s spaceport built to service Virgin Galactic’s oft-delayed space tourism business, has advanced out of its first committee.

The bill still needs to clear two more committees before it gets a floor vote, but considering the lack of progress at Virgin Galactic, I would not be surprised if it passes. The high hopes that created this spaceport a decade ago have now faded into a boondoggle that New Mexico probably can no longer afford.

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New Mexico wants out of the spaceport business

A state law-maker in New Mexico has introduced a bill to sell off the state’s spaceport, Spaceport America.

New Mexico spent $220 million to build it and Senator Munoz now says the state has come up short. “It’s not a revenue stream and they don’t know how to get that revenue stream and that’s what needs to change,” he said. He said a private company would do a better job behind the controls and believes there is a buyer out there.

The heart of the problem here is the long delayed first flight by Virgin Galactic. Spaceport America essentially has this one customer, and Virgin Galactic has simply failed to get off the ground with its commercial flights.

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Virgin Galactic vows to fly again by April

The heat of competition: During a press tour of its Mojave facilities this week Virgin Galactic’s CEO revealed that the company expects to begin flying its replacement to SpaceShipTwo by April.

George Whitesides, the company’s chief executive, said construction of the second spaceship is already 65 per cent complete. Like its doomed predecessor, Enterprise, the new spaceship’s name is a tribute to both Nasa and Star Trek. It will be called SS Voyager, the Sunday Times reports.

Whitesides also said that LauncherOne, designed to put very small payloads into orbit, is 18 months away from its first flight.

I hope this predictions are true, but coming from Virgin Galactic I think I can be forgiven if I am very skeptical. Nonetheless, in referring to the new ship I will make it a policy to call it Voyager from here on out to distinguish it from the first ship.

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A pause in investment commitment to Virgin Galactic

The heat of competition: Virgin Galactic’s Arab investors have decided to hold off further commitment to the project until the investigation of the SpaceShipTwo crash is completed.

The backing of deep-pocketed Aabar Investments, run by the Abu Dhabi government, may be crucial to Virgin Galactic as it struggles to recover from the accident, which killed one test pilot and left another seriously injured. “As an investor, Aabar is concerned of course. It is a challenge – nothing can be decided until investigations are over,” the source said, declining to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject. “For now, it is a wait-and-watch situation.” Asked if Aabar was still committed to Virgin Galactic, the source said only: “There is time to make an assessment of the future strategy.”

This is hardly a surprise. Nor does it guarantee an end to Richard Branson’s company. What it signals is a recognition that Virgin Galactic has had a serious problem and must demonstrate that it can fix that problem before it will regain the trust of its investors.

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