Tag Archives: Virgin Galactic

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.

Big scandal for Virgin Galactic’s investment partner

Virgin Galactic’s biggest investor has been caught up in a big scandal involving two of its top managers, including the arrest of one.

As noted at the link, there is no evidence that anyone at Virgin Galactic was involved in what appears to be an illegal transfer of $3.5 billion from the investment company. However, the collapse of this company, which invested $390 million for a 37% share in Virgin Galactic, could impact the space company’s future efforts.

Virgin Galactic, an expert in diversity!

Private vaporware: Virgin Galactic can’t seem to get its SpaceShipTwo off the ground but, darn it, the company, in partnership with the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS), sure can run a diversity workshop!

While charging each attendee $500 for the privilege! This quote from the link above illustrates where Virgin Galactic appears to be placing its focus:

Virgin Galactic’s Executive Vice President of Spaceport and Program Development, Jonathan Firth, recently spoke to us about the industry’s need to expand behaviours and devise new ways to embrace a more diverse and inclusive workforce. “Presently only 16 per cent of the space industry workforce are female. In order to strengthen our industry and our chances of achieving great things long term we need to change this. We need to refocus on how crucial it is that we, as a company, an industry, a planet, are proactively encouraging a wide ranging of workforce from all walks of life, geographical locations, academia, gender and race. We’re sure that the event will share some incredibly informative and surprising truths about why some teams thrive and others falter,” said Jonathan.

Then there’s this quote from this news report about the workshop:

Lastly, Virgin Galactic and the ISPCS ask the public to consider “What does success look like, without self at the center?”

To me, success for a space tourism company is flying its ships and passengers in space, not spending its time focusing on the race and gender of its employees. So far, it appears that Virgin Galactic does not yet understand this.

A report from Smallsat 2016

The competition heats up: Doug Messier has posted a nice summary of the most important presentations so far at Smallsat 2016 in Utah.

These are the rockets designed to launch cubesats or smaller. It appears that at least two companies, Firefly and Vector Space Systems, are getting close to their first flights. Both already have customers. The progress of a third company, Virgin Galactic, sounds as good, but they have talked big too many times in the past to trust them at this point. In fact, regardless of what any of these companies say, it will be actual flights that puts them on the map.

What is interesting is the number of these companies. There are a lot of them, which suggests strongly that some are going to succeed.

New smallsat company plans 200 satellite constellation

The competition heats up: A new smallsat satellite company, Sky and Space Global, is planning to launch a 200 nanosat communications constellation for less than $160 million.

More important, they have funded and built the first three, which they will launch in 2017:

The company, located in the U.K., Israel and Australia, has fully funded the first three satellites to precede an initial constellation of 200 nanosatellites. Coined the “Three Diamonds,” the nanosatellites are scheduled to launch as a rideshare aboard a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) from the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in the second quarter of 2017.

The pilot satellites are to determine the final characteristics of Sky and Space Global’s operational satellites, which are scheduled to begin launching in 2018 via Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne. Sky and Space Global’s goal is to field a constellation that will eventually become global for low cost telecommunications services such as voice, instant messaging and data forwarding.

What this story illustrates is that the smallsat market is about to become a reality, and in doing so it will shake up the entire geosynchronous communications satellite industry, much as SpaceX has shook up the launch industry. As I’ve noted earlier, these new smallsats suggest that the space industry is splitting, with unmanned Earth-orbit satellites going small and manned capabilities staying large.

Virgin Galactic gets another launch contract

The competition heats up: Virgin Galactic has signed a launch contract with new communications satellite company Sky and Space Global to use LauncherOne to put 200 nanosats into orbit in 2018.

This contract suggests that Virgin Galactic might be making good progress on LauncherOne. Or it might mean that Sky and Space has some commitments that forced it to pick Virgin Galactic over other smallsat launch companies that appear to be farther along in development. Either way, the stock market looked at this deal and, as noted in the article above, sold off enough Sky and Space stock for its value to drop.

The commerical battle over U.S. surplus ICBM’s

Link here. The article provides a good summary of the conflict between Orbital ATK and Virgin Galactic over the Defense Department’s possible sale of surplus ICBM’s for commercial use.

While Orbital has been lobbying to get Congress to lift the ban on the Pentagon selling its surplus rockets to the private sector, Virgin Galactic has been harnessing the industry lobbying arm to convince Congress to keep the ban. They fear that if the missiles become available, their as yet unflown LauncherOne will not be able to compete.

I find it very revealing that Virgin Galactic wants to use regulation to hinder their competitors. To me, this is another sign that they are not very competitive or competent in actual rocket building. Rather than build and launch their rocket at a competitive price, they want to stifle an opportunity to lower launch costs.

A hearing on this issue is taking place today. Stay tuned.

OneWeb to set up operations in Florida

The competition heats up: The head of OneWeb confirmed today that his company is going to establish its base of operations in Florida.

The founder of OneWeb, Greg Wyler, confirmed to the Orlando Sentinel that his company is moving to Kennedy Space Center. Wyler plans to announce more details Tuesday morning in a news conference with Gov. Rick Scott, who will explain $20 million in state incentive dollars for the company. “It’s pretty exciting to see that Florida will be the base for a new satellite network that will extend high-speed access to 54 percent of the globe,” Wyler said in a phone interview.

OneWeb already has $500 million in funding to launch the new satellites, designed to boost internet access globally. It also has contracts with Virgin Galactic and French company Arianespace for launches. The company plans to hire at least 250 people.

The important part of this story for Florida is that OneWeb will be building its satellites there. Whether any are ever launched from Florida will depend on Virgin Galactic ever getting off the ground. Otherwise, most of these satellites will launch from French Guiana.

Smallsat company searches for launch services

The competition heats up: Terra Bella, formally known as Skybox Imaging, hopes to have as many as 21 satellites in orbit by the end of 2017.

Space Systems Loral (SSL) is Terra Bella’s manufacturing partner for the SkySat satellites, building 19 SkySat Cs — one prototype and 18 final versions. Joe Rothenberg, director of Skybox engineering and operations at Google, told Via Satellite that the first SkySat C satellite is currently scheduled to launch aboard a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) from the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) on May 31. The PSLV launch is for the prototype to precede the rest of the series. The next four are then to launch on an Arianespace Vega as a rideshare this summer, followed by six more on Orbital ATK’s Minotaur rocket during the fourth quarter this year.

The Skybox C satellite only weights 265 pounds, so it is larger than a cubesat but tiny compared to most commercial satellites. The company’s problem now is that, except for Orbital ATK’s Minotaur rocket, they don’t have a launch vehicle dedicated to this size satellite. And Minotaur is probably too expensive (which is why Orbital wants the right to use surplus ICBM motors to power it). Because of this Terra Bella must launch its satellites as secondary payloads, which leaves them at the scheduling mercy of the primary payload. Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne is intended to serve this smallsat market, competing directly with Minotaur, but Terra Bella is understandably skeptical of that company’s effort.

A small piece of trivia. Rothenberg was a key NASA manager running the shuttle Hubble repair missions, one of the few NASA efforts that operated like a private company: competitive, hard-working, and demanding of success. It is entirely fitting that he has moved out of the government and into the private sector, where his skills can truly shine. It speaks well of Terra Bella that they hired him.

Virgin Galactic signs deal for supersonic plane

The competition heats up: Virgin Galactic has signed a deal with Boom, the start-up company trying to build the first commercial supersonic passenger jet since the Concorde.

Boom, which has spent the past three months participating in Y Combinator’s startup accelerator program in Silicon Valley, has inked a deal with Virgin. As part of the deal, Virgin has taken an option in Boom’s first 10 planes, while Virgin Galactic, the private space exploration company, will assist with manufacturing and testing through its manufacturing arm, The Spaceship Company.

I hope Boom is more successful than Virgin Galactic in getting its project off the ground. If not, than it will be a long time before we see this plane take off.

Virgin Galactic awards contract

The competition heats up: Virgin Galactic has awarded a contract to a Waco company to strengthen the wings of a 747 it intends to use the first stage for LauncherOne.

L-3’s work will make the left wing stout enough to support a rocket that would launch in flight from beneath the wing. This rocket would propel satellites into space for commercial and government customers. Company spokesman Lance Martin said that for confidentiality reasons he could not disclose the value of the contract or the length of the plane’s stay in Waco. He said performing work for Virgin Galactic and Branson should enhance L-3’s image, saying, “the customer speaks for itself.”

I suppose I should be excited by this, as it suggests that LauncherOne is moving forward. Considering Virgin Galactic’s history, however, I find myself sadly disinterested. I won’t get excited by this company again until they actually begin flying something.

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.

Virgin Galactic to use 747 for LauncherOne

The competition heats up? Virgin Galactic has purchased a 747 from Richard Branson’s Virgin Airlines to use as the launch vehicle for its LauncherOne rocket.

They say that WhiteKnightOne will still be used for suborbital flights, but that they need the 747 for the orbital missions of LauncherOne. They also say that test flights will begin in 2017. We shall see.

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.

Smallsat rocket launchers get NASA contracts

The competition heats up: NASA this week awarded contracts ranging from $4.7 to $6.9 million to three different smallsat launch companies.

The companies are Firefly Space Systems, Rocket Lab USA, and Virgin Galactic. The second is the company that just won the contract to put a privately-built lunar rover on the moon (part of the Google Lunar X-Prize).

In the past, cubesats and other small satellites could only afford to be secondary payloads on much larger rockets. Thus, they were at the mercy of the needs of the primary payload, often resulting in significant unplanned delays before launch. This in turn acted to discourage the development of smallsats. Now, with these private launch companies designed to service them exclusively the smallsat industry should start to boom.

Note also the low cost of these contracts. The small size of cubesats and the launchers designed for them means everything about them costs much less. Putting an unmanned probe into space is thus much more affordable.

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.

Virgin Galactic tests new rocket engine

The competition heats up? Virgin Galactic has released video of a test burn of a new engine designed to work with its LauncherOne rocket.

I put a question mark above because I have become very skeptical of any press announcements out of Virgin Galactic. They might have made progress on this new engine, and it also appears that they are doing engine work first for developing LauncherOne, a wise plan. However, their track record with SpaceShipTwo makes me doubtful about their ability to follow through. They need to produce to make me a believer once again.

Virgin Galactic announces changes to LauncherOne

Though this BBC news article is really nothing more than a propaganda piece for Virgin Galactic, the announcement it describes does confirm what has been suspected by space experts for months, that the company is reconfiguring LauncherOne to be more powerful and to launch on a bigger airplane, not WhiteKnightTwo.

In reading the quotes in this article from the various Virgin Galactic officials, I come away feeling even less confident of this company’s ability to get this rocket off the ground. To me, they sound like they are improvising wildly as they go, have no clear long term plan, and thus will have significant trouble settling on a final design early enough so that they will be able to build it intelligently.

I hope I am wrong. The report does suggest however that their investment in WhiteKnightTwo is increasingly appearing to be a waste. They won’t use it for LauncherOne, and their effort to launch SpaceShipTwo with it appears to be slowly vanishing.

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.

More problems at Virgin Galactic?

The story outlines what appear to significant problems at Virgin Galactic:

  • Some sources say the company has shelved LauncherOne in favor of a bigger launcher that would be deployed from the bottom of a 747, not WhiteKnightTwo.
  • The company however says LauncherOne is still under development.
  • The company admits that they recently had a LauncherOne test rocket engine explode during testing.

It appears that they have discovered that LauncherOne is not cost effective for meeting their contract with OneWeb to launch 39 satellites. It would only be able put up one satellite at a time. A more powerful launcher however would be too heavy for WhiteKnightTwo.

Thus, after 10 years of development, nothing they have built to date is useful for a profitable operation, and they apparently have to start over.

OneWeb awards major launch contracts

The competition heats up: OneWeb today announced it had raised a half billion dollars in investment capital, and has also awarded two major launch contracts, one to the Arianespace/Russian Soyuz partnership and the other to Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne.

The Soyuz gets 21 launches while LauncherOne gets 39. For Virgin Galactic this contract might save the company, as their effort to fly tourists on SpaceShipOne has badly stalled. The effort to build LauncherOne, however, seems to be gaining steam.

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.

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