Tag Archives: Virgin Galactic

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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VSS Unity completes fifth glide flight

Virgin Galactic’s new suborbital ship, VSS Unity, successfully made its fifth unpowered glide test flight today.

VSS Unity’s glide flights have gone well, and as a result, Virgin Galactic is getting ready to transition to the next part of the test campaign, company representatives said. “To that end, as we analyze the data from today’s flight, we will be moving into a period of ground-based activity focused on preparation for fueled, and then powered, flights,” they wrote in the description.

They provided no indication of exactly when those next flights will occur, which considering the company’s past record of failed predictions, is definitely a good thing.

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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 completes third glide test

The competition heats up? Virgin Galactic’s new SpaceShipTwo, Unity, successfully completed its third glide test on February 24.

I must admit that I cannot get excited by this event. Until Virgin Galactic flies this ship with its engines and puts it through a full suborbital flight, I remain completely skeptical about its capabilities.

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Testing of Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne first stage engine

The competition heats up: This week Virgin Galactic’s successfully completed a long duration static fire test of the first stage engine of its LauncherOne smallsat rocket.

I predict that LauncherOne will fly its first commercial flight before Unity, the company’s second SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, and it will do it multiple times. In fact, right now I firmly believe that Unity is never going to reach suborbital space, as they have designed it for an engine that simply doesn’t work, and can’t figure out how to redesign it to solve the problem.

LauncherOne meanwhile has at least one launch contract, and is being designed with a workable engine, right from the start.

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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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Another captive carry flight test of Virgin Galactic’s Unity

After cancelling a planned first glide test of Virgin Galactic’s Unity spaceship in early November, the company completed a second captive carry flight on November 30.

“As part of our ground and flight testing, we made a few tweaks to the vehicle,” Virgin Galactic tweeted before the Nov. 30 flight. “We’ll test those in a captive carry flight today.” Virgin Galactic has not announced when the next test flight will take place or if it will include a glide test.

They apparently found some issues both from the first captive carry flight as well as ground tests that required them to make some changes to the spaceship and do another captive carry flight.

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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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Virgin Galactic lawsuit against Firefly moves forward

Virgin Galactic last week moved forward aggressively in its lawsuit against Firefly Space Systems, its officers, and its business partners for using stealing trade secrets.

According to the Complaint, Galactic hired Markusic in 2011 as its VP of Propulsion. Markusic’s role gave him intimate knowledge of the Company’s research into liquid rocket propulsion, space vehicle architecture, “aerospike” technology, and other confidential projects. While still employed at Galactic, Markusic allegedly solicited business partners and founded Firefly based on concepts and data he obtained in the course of his work. Galactic maintains that Markusic and Firefly relied on and continues to use the Company’s technical and marketing information, as well as Markusic’s engineering notes from his tenure at Galactic, to develop products such as a recently announced small launch vehicle.

The worst thing about this court battle to me is that if Virgin Galactic has developed worthwhile technology in connection with the aerospike engine, they have done nothing to develop it, and are now acting to squelch someone else’s effort.

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Cash shortage and court problems for Firefly

In the heat of competition: Firefly Space Systems appears to be in serious trouble with a court case going against it and what appears to be a loss of funding.

The legal battle took a turn in Virgin Galactic’s favor earlier this month when the arbitrator in the case (case no. 01-12-0002-2467) made a terminating sanctions ruling determining that Markusic did take Virgin Galactic trade secrets, destroyed evidence, impeded the arbitration process, and transferred Virgin Galactic confidential information to Firefly computers. This ruling makes any further legal action by Virgin Galactic much simpler as they no longer have to prove Markusic took their confidential information.

Things appeared to be going well at Firefly before this ruling, with a high volume of new hiring going on, a $5.5 million Venture class launch services contract with NASA, test firings of their engine, and a successful raise of $19 million in funding. Things may have changed with a statement posted to Twitter today on their @Firefly_Space account stating they have “experienced a setback on funding”.

Freedom and competition produces results fast and of high quality. It also carries risk and allows for failure. It appears that unfortunately Firefly might be illustrating the failure part of the equation.

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Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne signs another customer

The competition heats up: Virgin Galactic on Monday announced that it has signed a four-launch contract with Sky and Space Global, using its LauncherOne smallsat air-launched rocket.

They hope to launch by 2018. I’ll make a prediction: LaunchOne will complete its first commercial launch before SpaceShipOne.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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