Tag Archives: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic’s Unity spacecraft completes 2nd test flight above 50 miles

Capitalism in space: Virgin Galactic’s Unity suborbital spacecraft today successfully completed its seconnd test flight above 50 miles, carrying a test passenger for the first time.

The vessel was ferried up attached to a larger plan called WhiteKnightTwo, dropped into the sky, and then taken up by rocket-powered engine to more than 50 miles above the Earth’s surface just before 9 a.m. local time. It landed safely 15 minutes later. The company said VSS Unity hit Mach 3.04 and traveled to an altitude of 55.87 miles or 295,007 feet, faster and higher than any test flight yet for the vessel.

In addition to the two pilots, Unity carried a test passenger, Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor. Besides gathering data, she also unstrapped to experience weightlessness.

The link makes the false claim that this was the first time weightlessness was experienced in a commercial vehicle, even though numerous people have flown weightless on private “vomit comet” airplane flights.

It does appear that Virgin Galactic is finally, after fourteen years, getting close to that first ticketed tourist flight. It also looks possible that they will never quite reach 62 miles, the more commonly accepted definition for the beginnings of space.

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Bezos comparing New Shepard to SpaceShipTwo: “No asterisks.”

Capitalism in space: During an event yesterday, Blue Origin’s owner Jeff Bezos made it a point to note the superior launch capabilities of Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard spacecraft over Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.

Bezos, in the interview, pointed out the altitude difference between the two vehicles. New Shepard has typically exceeded 100 kilometers, an altitude known as the Karman Line, on its test flights. SpaceShipTwo reached a peak altitude of 82.7 kilometers on its most recent test flight Dec. 13, its first above the 50-mile boundary used by U.S. government agencies to award astronaut wings. “One of the issues that Virgin Galactic will have to address, eventually, is that they are not flying above the Karman Line, not yet,” Bezos said. “I think one of the things they will have to figure out how to get above the Karman Line.”

“We’ve always had as our mission that we wanted to fly above the Karman Line, because we didn’t want there to be any asterisks next to your name about whether you’re an astronaut or not,” he continued. “That’s something they’re going to have to address, in my opinion.”

For those who fly on New Shepard, he said, there’ll be “no asterisks.”

Bezos also indicated that he is increasingly hopeful that the first manned test flights of New Shepard will occur this year.

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Branson seeks new capital for Virgin Galactic/Orbit

Capitalism in space: Apparently short of cash because of his cancellation of a $1 billion investment space deal with Saudi Arabia, Richard Branson has hired a finance firm to find him new capital for his two space companies Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit.

Sources said this weekend that Sir Richard was seeking funding that would value Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit, which launches satellites for commercial customers, at a combined sum of well over $2bn (£1.55bn).

The precise amount that he is looking to raise has yet to be determined, but people close to the process suggested it would be at least $250m (£193m), representing a minority stake.

The structure of a deal could see new shareholders injecting money into either, or both, Virgin-branded space companies.

I will not be surprised if Branson gets the investment capital for Virgin Orbit. I will also not be surprised if he has trouble finding anyone willing to invest a lot in Virgin Galactic. In fact, this shortage in capital might spell the end of this fourteen year effort at building a reusable spacecraft designed to provide suborbital tourism.

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Virgin Galactic lays off 40 workers

Capitalism in space: Virgin Galactic earlier in January laid off 40 workers, saying it was in preparation for moving their launch operations to New Mexico where they will be doing their commercial flights.

This is about 5% of their payroll, so at first glance it does not appear to be a significant number. Yet, if they were about to move to commercial operations I would think their payroll would grow, not shrink.

The article itself buys into the company’s tediously overworn sales pitch (that they have been pushing for more than a decade) that they are about to start commercial operations, flying paying tourists, but this is just not credible. For example, as part of this sales pitch they made a big deal about hiring Under Armour to make the flight suits for their flights. Yet, no designs have been released, even though Virgin Galactic has been working on doing commercial tourist flights for more than fourteen years. Only now they realize they need flight suits?

In 2017 I predicted that Virgin Orbit would fly a commercial flight before Virgin Galactic, even though Orbit only started to seriously build its rocket in 2015, about a dozen years after Galactic got started. I stand by that prediction, which I expect will prove true this year.

At the time I also predicted that Virgin Galactic’s Unity spaceship will never make orbital space, defined by practically everyone since around 1970 to be 67 miles elevation, or 100 kilometers. I also stand by that prediction, because only just before Unity’s flight to barely 50 miles did the issue of the definition of space reappear after almost a half century. Virgin Galactic has been pushing to get the definition changed because their spacecraft probably cannot get to 67 miles.

I just wish reporters would stop buying into Branson’s sales pitch. Show some skepticism, damn it. Your job isn’t to be a public relations agent for him.

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Virgin Galactic finally reaches space, by one definition

Capitalism in space: By one of the definitions of where space begins, Virgin Galactic’s second SpaceShipTwo Unity finally reached space for the first time during a test flight today.

During a flight test today, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo burned its engine for 60 seconds and reached an altitude of 271,268 (51.37 miles/82.7 km), which put the vehicle into space for the first time according to one definition of the boundary.

Pilots C.J. Sturkow and Mark Stucky deployed the spacecraft’s feather system — twin tail booms that re-configure the ship for re-entry — after reaching a top speed of Mach 2.9. They glided the vehicle back to a safe landing on Runway 12-30 at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California’s High Desert.

The U.S military initially defined space as beginning at 50 miles altitude. Later the international definition defining space as beginning at 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) became more accepted. In recent years there has been a push to accept the U.S. military’s older definition (partly I think generated by Virgin Galactic itself). Truth is, the U.S. military’s definition actually makes more sense, since it is possible to orbit a satellite at 50 miles, for short periods.

The pressure to change however does suggest that Unity might not be capable of reaching 62 miles.

Regardless, this flight culminates fourteen years of effort at Richard Branson s company to produce a reusable suborbital spaceship that can fly in space. It appears they have finally done it. Whether it will be reliable enough to fly repeatedly, with commercial passengers, remains to be seen. Moreover, the commercial landscape has changed considerably during those fourteen years. Had they flown a decade ago, as Branson repeatedly predicted, they would have been the only game in town. That is no longer the case. They now have a competitor, Blue Origin with its suborbital New Shepard spaceship, and affordable commercial orbital flights are just around the corner.

Still, Virgin Galactic’s achievement here is significant. They have built a spaceship that has taken humans to space (and can do it again), and they have done it with private funds.

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Branson suspends negotiations with Saudi Arabia

Virgin Group chairman Richard Branson today announced that he is suspending negotiations with Saudi Arabia’s investment funds because of their involvement in the disappearance and possible murder of a journalist in the Saudi consulate in Turkey.

“What has reportedly happened in Turkey around the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi government,” Branson said in a statement.

It was expected that Saudi Arabia was going to invest about a billion dollars in Branson’s space companies, Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit.

Branson has also suspended his directorship in two Saudi tourism projects.

I must wonder if what really has happened is that the Saudi’s were becoming reluctant to commit funds to Branson because of the lack of success at Virgin Galactic, and Branson is therefore providing himself cover for the failure of the negotiations by claiming it was he that pulled out, for different reasons.

At the same time, what happened to Khashoggi might justify Branson’s actions.

He had an appointment at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to collect some documents he needed to marry his Turkish fiancee — a certificate showing that he was divorced from his first wife. He entered the consulate on Oct. 2 at 1:14 p.m., asking his fiancee to wait outside for him. She did. Until 2 a.m. He never emerged.

A number of news outlets, citing Turkish sources, are reporting that Jamal Khashoggi, the former editor of a Saudi newspaper, regime critic and Washington Post contributor, was murdered. The New York Times quoted sources who said that 15 Saudi agents from the security services, including one autopsy expert, entered Turkey that same day on two chartered flights. They departed that evening. The Saudis claim that Khashoggi left the consulate an hour after he arrived and have no idea what became of him. The Turks would like to send a forensic team inside, but the Saudis have refused.

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Virgin Galactic’s Unity successfully completes powered test flight

Capitalism in space: Virgin Galactic’s Unity spacecraft today successfully completed its third powered test flight, reaching an altitude of 170,800 feet, or about 32 miles.

Though this is a record flight for any of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwos, this elevation is still about half that reached by Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital capsule, and is considerably below the presently accepted international definition for space, which is 100 kilometers, or about 62 miles. It is getting close to the line accepted by the U.S. Air Force, 50 miles, and now being pushed by some as a better line for the beginnings of space.

Regardless, this success is good news for Virgin Galactic, as it indicates they might finally be getting close to commercial flights, after fourteen years of development.

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First SpaceshipTwo powered flight since accident

Capitalism in space? Virgin Galactic today successfully completed the first powered test flight of VSS Unity, the first such test flight since the flight accident that destroyed the first SpaceShipTwo and killed on pilot in October 2014.

VSS Unity was dropped from its WhiteKnightTwo mothership from about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters) over the mountains about 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Pilots David Mackay and Mark “Forger” Stucky fired Unity’s hybrid engine for 30 seconds, boosting the vehicle to a top speed of Mach 1.87 and a maximum altitude of 84,271 feet (25,686 m) before gliding back to the runway at the spaceport, Virgin Galactic representatives said.

During the descent, the crew deployed SpaceShipTwo’s feather system, which reconfigures the ship into a high-drag shuttlecock by moving its twin tail booms. The feather will be used to soften the vehicle’s re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere during spaceflight.

They say that they hope to begin commercial flights later this year, but I remain exceedingly skeptical.

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VSS Unity completes 7th glide test

Capitalism in space: Virgin Galactic’s Unity suborbital spaceship completed 7th glide test today.

I must admit that I am only reporting this because I feel obligated to. This was their first flight in five months, and they have still not done a powered flight. I cannot get excited about Virgin Galactic and SpaceshipTwo until I actually see them reach space, something they have still not accomplished after fourteen years of development.

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Virgin Galactic signs deal with Italy for dedicated research flight

Yawn. Virgin Galactic has announced that it has signed a deal with Italy for a future SpaceShipTwo research flight.

I feel obliged to report this, but am also very skeptical about it. They have still not performed any powered flights with their new ship, Unity. And their last glide test was four months ago. They state that they will have a full test flight program in 2018, but we have heard that story so many times before we’d all be silly to believe them now.

When they start flying, I will start taking them seriously again. Not before.

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Saudi Arabia to invest $1 billion in Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit

Capitalism in space: Saudi Arabia and Virgin have signed a non-binding agreement for Saudi Arabia to invest $1 billion in Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit.

I’m not sure what to make of this press release. The agreement is clearly called “non-binding,” which means Saudi Arabia is not obliged to provide any funds. At the same time, the deal appears to shift power and control of the two Virgin companies to the Arab country, which if successful (a big “if”) would also quickly give Saudi Arabia both a manned and smallsat launching capability.

Why they chose Virgin appears at first baffling, considering that company’s repeated inability to achieve any of its promises. It could be, however, that Richard Branson’s funds are drying up, and that he needed this deal to keep both companies afloat. Saudi Arabia thus saw an opportunity and grabbed it.

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First Flight

The last part in Doug Messier’s series on the commercial aviation/space history, First Flight, is now available.

Messier brings his history of Virgin Galactic up to the present, and then compares their efforts to build a reusable suborbital spacecraft with that of Blue Origin and its New Shepard design. For Virgin Galactic, the comparison does not reflect well upon them. While fourteen years have passed since the company began its so far unsuccessful effort to reach suborbital space, Blue Origin has already done it multiple times, with a reusable ship. And it took Blue Origin about half the time to make that happen.

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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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