Wall Street Journal Story Adds Details to Virgin Galactic’s Troubles With SpaceShipTwo

Richard Branson speaks to the press at the Mojave Air and Space Port about the crash off SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Richard Branson speaks to the press at the Mojave Air and Space Port about the crash off SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

The Wall Street Journal has a good piece on all the problems Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic have had with SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo over the years. It pretty confirms everything I’ve been writing for the last few years, adding some interesting details but getting a few of them wrong.

There were a number of interesting elements here:

The article claims that Sierra Nevada Corporation was brought in by Scaled Composites to develop SpaceShipTwo’s engine  in 2009. That’s not accurate.

Scaled Composites signed a contract for engine development work with SpaceDev in August 2008. SpaceDev had developed the original engine for SpaceShipOne, but there was a falling out between the company and Scaled Composites. (More accurately, a falling out between Scaled Composites’ Burt Rutan and SpaceDev’s Jim Benson, who once came to blows at a space conference.)

Scaled subsequently embarked on its own rubber hybrid engine program. After a fatal explosion on a test stand killed three engineers in July 2007, Scaled decided to bring SpaceDev into the program.

Sierra Nevada Corporation complete its acquisition off SpaceDev in December 2008. Sierra Nevada worked on SpaceShipTwo’s rubber hybrid motor until earlier this year when Virgin Galactic announced a change to a plastic hybrid motor.

According to the story, SpaceDev said it would take four to six years to design an engine for SpaceShipTwo. Yet, during that period, Virgin officials were constantly reassuring everyone that everything was on track with the engine. I recall doing a story about five years ago for a magazine, and the Virgin people told me all was A-OK with the engine. A short time after filing the story, I discovered it wasn’t.

Sir Richard Branson was also perpetually making optimistic projections during this period about when commercial service would begin, predictions that were significantly at odds with realities in Mojave and Poway.  I’ve become very aware of that gap during the last three years that I have been living in Mojave.

The story also confirms what I reported about SNC’s rubber hybrid not being able to get SpaceShipTwo all the way to space.  The plan was to reduce the passenger load to four. The article says Virgin Galactic told Sierra Nevada it couldn’t make money with that passenger load. This led to the change to the plastic motor and a parting of ways with Sierra Nevada.

What the story doesn’t say is that the addition of wing tanks for methane needed to light the plastic motor added a lot of weight to the ship. So, the passenger load appears to be stuck at four, and it’s not clear exactly how high SpaceShipTwo can fly with the new propulsion system. They’re aiming for 50 miles (the U.S. Air Force boundary of space) and hoping for 62 miles (the international definition.)

The story also slightly distorts an incident that occurred in which a plastic hybrid motor came apart on the test stand. If it’s the incident I’m thinking about, it occurred in May 2013, not earlier this year. (Unless Virgin Galactic destroyed another test stand in 2014, and I just haven’t heard about it.) In any event, I recall that it was about three weeks after the first powered flight in late April 2013.

It is true that they introduced flaws into the motor for the 2013 test. However, the subsequent explosion came as a shock to everyone because it destroyed an expensive test stand and permanently damaged a nitrous tank. Nobody sets out to do that.