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Virgin Galactic’s first Unity launch from New Mexico fizzles

Capitalism in space: Virgin Galactic’s first attempt to launch its SpaceShipTwo Unity suborbital spacecraft from its New Mexico spaceport ended almost immediately after the ship was released from WhiteKnightTwo when its engines did not ignite.

All appeared normal during the flight’s early phases. VSS Unity was carried into the air by its twin-fuselage mothership, known as WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve, and was released to fly free at an altitude of more than 40,000 feet.

A webcast provided via showed the flash of the plane’s hybrid rocket motor lighting up, but only for a second. After the flame-out, Test pilots Dave Mackay and C.J. Sturckow brought Unity back down to the spaceport for a gliding landing.

I wish Virgin Galactic well, but at this point consider the company a backwater in the drive to develop a commercial space tourism industry. It took them too long to get to this point. Even if they should start flying tourists next year, they will be competing with orbital tourist flights by SpaceX, and the contrast is stark. I simply no longer see a viable customer base for Virgin Galactic, unless they get a lot of government subsidies.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs."--San Antonio Express-News


  • David M. Cook

    Robert, what‘s up with “Virgina Galactic”? You spelled it that way twice at the start of the article, is this correct?

  • Skunk Bucket

    I was rather amused by that spelling, actually. It truly is sad, though, how the company threw away what should have been a commanding lead in the commercial space industry. Yes, space is hard, but it’s no excuse to sit around with your thumb up your butt.

  • David M. Cook: It’s called a typo, repeated several times because of cut and paste. Thank you. It is fixed.

  • Chris Lopes

    One does get the impression that Branson and company are not as into actual space flight as other space companies. The basic technology that Virgin is employing is from 2004. Outside of conning the state of New Mexico into helping build a monument to Richard Brandon’s ego, I don’t see any real effort to get something into space. One wonders what the real agenda here is.

  • john hare

    One does wonder after a while if this has been a shell game to GET money from investors/government/suckers/stock swindles– rather than an effort to MAKE money by supplying a service.

  • Col Beausabre

    Never forget that Virgin Galactic has a secret weapon, as effective in his own way as Elon Musk, Richard Branson – Master of Hype. I can see those government taps opening.

    What I’d like to see is that after SpaceX flies its first paying passenger, Musk offers to buy Branson’s remaing holdings in the firm and merges it into his operation.

  • That’s just what Musk needs — to have Branson’s corporate culture and attitude merged into his — not!

  • wayne

    The phrase, “all hat, no cattle,” comes to mind.

  • janyuary

    Col. Beau: “Richard Branson – Master of Hype. I can see those government taps opening.

    When such taps are in the hands of upper management types in giant entertainment companies, it’s only amusing to see them expensively swept away by a master of “soaring on the updraft of his own rhetoric.” But when those taps are in the hands of government officials … that is our money and its use for something that can be done by private enterprise necessarily compromises the marketplace’s ability and motivation to provide the service in a free market.

    But as big as Branson’s ego may be, it is infinitesimal compared to those of the politicians whose hands are on the government taps! The solution, of course, is to limit government — for our own safety. It is a dangerous servant, a force like fire, and we MUST limit fire for our own safety.

    This is the ONLY WAY people on planet earth can pioneer liberty and self-ownership in the 21st century.

    Wayne: Another one that sums it up (wish I’d written this slogan!): In business, only performance is reality.
    It could be doubly true for space!

  • F16 Guy

    Not to be overlooked in the big picture of Spaceport, New Mexico is the fraud perpetrated by those running Spaceport:

    October 2020

    LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) — The CEO of New Mexico’s commercial spacecraft launch facility facing accusation he pressured a former chief financial officer to circumvent internal financial controls was ousted Friday.

    Dan Hicks was terminated as Spaceport America’s executive director and CEO with little public discussion at a Friday virtual meeting, the Las Cruces Sun-News reports.

    The governing board of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority met in a special session via video conference. The firing comes as Hicks has been on administrative leave since June while allegations of mismanagement and abuse of authority have been under investigation by the New Mexico State Auditor and the New Mexico Spaceport Authority.

  • Ray Van Dune

    I think Branson’s spaceport would encompass the exclusion zone required for the Superheavy just fine. Just make sure Branson isn’t involved in any way! Wouldn’t Elon would love his SpaceX HQ to be located in “Truth or Consequences”?

  • Mitch S

    Poor Sir Richard, SpaceX ruined everything.
    Think about it, if it weren’t for Musk/SpaceX, Branson would would be lauded as the only western entity to put humans into space since 2011.
    He could brag about his operational spaceplane while his competition; Gov’t backed NASA and Arianespace, Big Corporate/Military backed ULA and Big Billionaire backed Blue Origin are still just talking. His only competition in the passenger biz would be some balloons.

    Of course seeing SpaceX put astronauts into orbit and onto the ISS makes Virgin’s 50 mile hops look a bit lame.
    Still, while Branson can’t brag about first paying passenger (Russians got that), he might yet be able to achieve first regular passenger service. There is still a window for Virgin, if Musk decides to move on passenger service it will take time and will be a much higher cost trip. If there are no more mishaps and if they don’t run out of money, Virgin might have something going.
    Some big ifs there but Virgin still has a chance (until Starship is developed and SpaceX’s cost/passenger drops dramatically).

  • Max

    Chris said;
    “One wonders what the real agenda here is.”
    Acquisition, change name to virgin to inflate price with razzle dazzle, then sell or mortgage to buy a bigger prize.
    It’s not so much of a con as it is a modern PT Barnum.
    Here is the incomplete list starting small and growing bolder with each investment.

    This does not mention stocks he owns in other companies (like artificial meat thing to go on line to the public in 2021 which Bill Gates sold 2/3 of his stock after Branson increased its net worth)

    He’s doing OK.

  • Col Beausabre

    Chris said;
    “One wonders what the real agenda here is.”

    Making money, Branson’s heart isn’t in space flight. He just wants to make money (and get talked about),. Look at all the pots he’s had a finger in over the years,

  • George C

    If you imagine yourself as a space tourist and can imagine yourself on a flight you will admit that Virgin’s product is going to be infinitely more scenic on the way up and more pleasant on the way up and down compared to riding as a payload on a rocket. You can research the phrase that some of the X-15 pilots used to characterized the project Mercury astronauts. Obviously Virgin has had problems in it’s supply chain, with changes of ownership and priorities of it’s suppliers. But Virgin’s product concept is technically sound and eventually somebody is going to build a reliable system based on that concept.

  • pzatchok

    George C

    The whole design is a cluster of ducks.

    The rocket engine should have been thrown out and a liquid engine put in its place. For extra thrust they could have put on proven JATO style packs.

    The plane design was all wrong also.
    Under thrust if the wings came unlocked the craft lost all stability. And they had no way of keeping the wings locked while under thrust.

  • pzatchok

    Plus the craft was way to small. In the end it only has 4 or 6 seats anyways.
    You had no way of getting out of your seat to experience zero-g. It would be a longer and better experience taking a ride on the Vomit comit.

    And its way cheaper.

  • George C


    Definitely agree with you that there are design limitations in the implementation that Virgin has been able to obtain at whatever level of finance and schedule they have been able to afford., or desire to risk. The powered rocket plane launched from a jet aircraft concept is historically an incremental approach that evidently takes a lot of time and experimentation to get right. I think there is still a lot to learn. Recall that the first powered X-15 flight, dropped from a B-52 was more than 60 years ago, And the B-52 is still a fully operational system with about 60 in service, with a scheduled program lifetime of 100 years. Looking back 60 years, obviously engineers and politicians saw rockets as the quickest way to the Moon. One X-15 pilot named Neil Armstrong switched from flying the X-15 to flying the lunar lander. Rockets all the way up and down and back up again., like Starship. It was the fastest way to the goal of getting to the Moon with 1950’s technology and is obviously the fastest way to get to Mars today.

    But in terms of quality of the tourist experience, I don’t view a full weightless experience as a positive. The view from an aircraft is much better, and a vomit-comit is not to everybody’s taste. It could very well be that we have Starship on Mars years before the rocket-plane launched from an aircraft is a popular tourist experience, but I hope you can see that it will be popular; a thrilling, visually exiting ride without all the vibration, noise, and g-force excursions a human experiences as a rocket payload.

    Yes, hybrid rocket engines, with solid fuel, and a liquid oxidizer, maybe are too difficult to engineer, and if the human-rated SuperDraco engines could be purchased by Virgin it might be a lot better way to go. Maybe a commercial off the shelf Airbus or Boeing aircraft converted into a bomber so as to carry one or more tourist-class rocket planes would be a sound investment. But you will have to wait another 25 years to be able to pick up military surplus B-52s.

  • pzatchok

    A radically converted 747 would work better.

    Rip out the seating. And maybe even the windows for that section. There is no one on the plane in the passenger area to look out of one anymore.

    Add in a bunch of internal re-enforcing to the air frame.

    Rip off the bottom of the fuselage to accommodate the small rocket plane rolling in from the back, hooking on and being lifted into the ‘bomb bay’.

    Drop it like the X-15.

    If one could carry the space shuttle it could carry that little thing.

    You wouldn’t even need to hire Scaled Composites to build a whole new plane.

  • pazatchok: This is exactly what Virgin Orbit did for its LauncherOne rocket. They very quickly realized the limitations of Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo, and abandoned it for a 747.

  • Edward

    George C,
    You wrote: “But in terms of quality of the tourist experience, I don’t view a full weightless experience as a positive. The view from an aircraft is much better, and a vomit-comit is not to everybody’s taste.

    I think that you have missed the whole point of the space tourist experience. The main advantage is that the tourist has been in space. Not on an airplane forty or fifty miles below space. Not on a balloon thirty or forty miles below space. In Space. That is what people are paying for. To be one of the few people to have ever gone there.

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