Tag Archives: spaceshiptwo

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Second SpaceShipTwo almost ready for flight

The heat of competition: Virgin Galactic today released hanger photos of the almost finished second SpaceShipTwo.

Even as the investigation into the fatal breakup of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane continues in Mojave, California, the next SpaceShipTwo is more than halfway complete in a Mojave hangar — and is expected to start going through tests on the ground and in the air next year.

Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing subsidiary, The Spaceship Company, has been working on the plane for two and a half years. It’s variously known as SpaceShipTwo Tail No. 2 or N202VG, and it’s part of Virgin Galactic plan to have a fleet of five SpaceShipTwo rocket planes and two WhiteKnightTwo carrier planes.

This story is a great example of the public relations genius of Richard Branson. Even with the pieces of SpaceShipTwo still being picked up on the ground he finds a way to sell his company positively to the world. They not only intend to continue their effort, they have the ship to prove it!

Update on SpaceShipTwo investigation

Additional details about the investigation into the crash of SpaceShipTwo have now been released.

The investigators are focusing on the telemetry that the pilots were receiving, as well as the system for activating the ship’s braking feathering system.

As I have noted in the comments, we must try not to speculate on this subject, especially because this issue could do harm to innocent people. For example, some reports have incorrectly attributed the crash to pilot error. To say this now is false. All the investigation has noted is that the co-pilot took the first step to activating the feathering system, as he was supposed to do, though slightly early. The feathering system then deployed on its own, without the second command being given.

We do not yet know the finer details that make his action significant, or not. This is why the investigation is checking into the telemetry the pilots were getting, which might have affected when they did what they did.

We need to wait for more data.

Some Virgin Galactic customers demand money back

News reports suggest that — following last week’s SpaceShipTwo crash — more than thirty of the seven hundred people who placed deposits with Virgin Galactic to fly on SpaceshipTwo have pulled out, demanding their money back.

In response to the claim that more than 30 customers are considering their position in the aftermath of the crash, a spokesperson for Virgin Galactic admitted a number of people have asked for their money back. “We can confirm that less than three per cent of people have requested refunds,” the spokesman said.

This is not a surprise, nor should it be. A company can only survive a crisis like this by responding honestly, quickly, and directly. If Virgin Galactic does this, finding the cause of the crash and fixing it, they will likely hold onto most of their customers. If they don’t, those remaining customers will leave. This week’s cancellations are the first immediate response to the crash. The future of the company, however, will be determined by what happens in the next six months.

SpaceShipTwo’s engine did not cause failure

The investigation into the failure of SpaceShipTwo last week during a powered flight test has determined that the accident was not caused by the spaceship’s engine and that the spaceship’s feathering system for return to Earth began deploying early during powered flight.

The ship’s fuel tanks and its engine were recovered intact, indicating there was no explosion. “They showed no signs of burn-through, no signs of being breached,” Christopher Hart, acting chairman of the National Transportation and Safety Board, told reporters at the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, Calif

Instead, data and video relayed from the ship show its hallmark safety feature — a foldable tail section designed for easy re-entry into the atmosphere from space — was deployed early.

More here. Deployment required two commands, activation and then deployment. Data shows that the co-pilot Michael Alsbury activated the system slightly early. The second command, however, was not given, but the feathering system began to deploy nonetheless, during powered flight when the ship was accelerating upward. That is when the ship broke up.

SpaceShipTwo accident pilots identified

As the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) begins its investigation into the SpaceShipTwo test flight failure, the identities of the two pilots have finally been released.

The Kern County Coroner’s Office announced Nov. 1 that Michael Alsbury, a 39-year-old test pilot employed by Scaled Composites, was the person killed in the crash of the vehicle north of Mojave, California. Scaled Composites confirmed that identification in a press release issued late Nov. 1, which also stated that the pilot injured in the crash was the company’s director of flight operations, Peter Siebold. Alsbury was the co-pilot of SpaceShipTwo on its first powered flight, in April 2013. According to public flight logs maintained by Scaled Composites, he most recently flew SpaceShipTwo as co-pilot on an unpowered test flight on Aug. 28, a “cold flow” test where nitrous oxide was vented through the engine but not ignited.

Siebold was the pilot or co-pilot of SpaceShipTwo on its previous four flights, including the Aug. 28 flight with Alsbury. Siebold was also a pilot on several test flights of SpaceShipOne, an earlier suborbital spaceplane developed by Scaled Composites that won the $10-million Ansari X Prize in 2004. In the statement, Scaled Composites said that Siebold was “alert and talking with his family and doctors,” but provided no other details about his condition.

Alsbury should receive the same honor given to all other astronauts and pilots who have sacrificed their lives so that humans will someday leave the surface of the Earth.

“The sky is crying.”

Words from Mohave.

Friday began bright and sunny, a day full of promise that quickly brought tragedy. As I write this early on Saturday, a cold hard rain is lashing at my windows. That’s a good thing. We need it.

And it feels right. The sky is crying, adding to an ocean of tears shed here today.

SpaceShipTwo crashes during test flight

During a powered flight test today SpaceShipTwo suffered an explosion, destroying the ship.

It is reported that the problem occurred after the ship fired its engines. It is also reported that parachutes were spotted after the explosion, but at this moment the fate of the pilots is unknown.

Update: One report says that one pilot was killed while the other was seriously injured. More info here.

Virgin Galactic outlines near term test flight schedule

The competition heats up: In a newspaper interview, the CEO of Virgin Galactic has outlined the company’s flight plans for SpaceShipTwo in the coming months, leading hopefully to its first commercial flights.

“We expect to get to space altitude in a short number of flights, assuming the rocket performs as expected,” Whitesides told the Journal. “Scaled made it to space in four flights with SpaceShipOne. I believe it will be a little more than that for us, but not dramatically so.”

Once SpaceShipTwo successfully reaches space, Scaled Composites will turn over the rocket to Virgin Galactic for its commercial operations based in New Mexico. Virgin has already taken control of the mothership, which it flew to Spaceport America for some initial test operations in September. “Once we take control of SpaceShipTwo, we expect to do some more testing here in New Mexico, but that will primarily be efficiency testing rather than technology testing,” Whitesides said. “It will give pilots an opportunity to train at this airfield after Mojave to practice things like coming in on final approach.”

As much as I have expressed strong skepticism in recent months of Virgin Galactic’s promises, I truly hope this happens, and soon.

SpaceShipTwo poised for powered test flights

Virgin Galactic officials outline the status of SpaceShipTwo, suggesting that powered flight tests are finally about to begin.

Providing a rare glimpse of progress on a second spacecraft under assembly at sister organization, The Spaceship Co., Virgin Galactic Vice President of Operations Mike Moses says, “we are ready for space.” A former NASA launch integration manager for the space shuttle, Moses adds that SS2 “has been in modification, getting retrofitted ready to resume powered flights.” He notes that “those are going to start imminently—literally very imminently.”

Commenting on the extensive gap between now and the last rocket flight in January, Moses says, “It might seem a long time since our last powered flight-testing and that maybe nothing has been happening, but [ground testing] has been happening.” Tests have largely focused on ground-firings of a hybrid rocket motor fueled with polyamide-based plastic in place of the hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene, a form of rubber used for the first series of powered tests. Although this fuel had been used successfully in SpaceShipOne, the vehicle developer Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic encountered fuel-burn stability and power issues as they tried to scale the Sierra Nevada Corp.-provided hybrid motor up to the size required by the larger SS2.

It appears my guess was right and that the last two glide tests were to retrofit SpaceShipTwo for the new fuel and engine. This has now been accomplished, and they are preparing to begin powered flight tests.

The article also describes work on a second SpaceShipTwo, which when completed will give Virgin Galactic the beginnings of a fleet of ships.

Another delay at Virgin Galactic

In an interview with David Letterman this week, Richard Branson admitted that his first flight on SpaceShipTwo will not be in December 2014 but early next year.

Watch the interview at the link. It is very clear that Branson is getting uncomfortable with the situation. He has made these claims too many times without showing any results. Also note the incredible ignorance exhibited by Letterman. A good interviewer has to ask some basic questions, but a good interviewer also needs to have a basic understanding of the subject. Letterman shows us here that he doesn’t know squat.

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