by Douglas Messier
Some day, Richard Branson might fly to space, gaze out the window, and see stars with his naked eyes, unencumbered by the Earth’s atmosphere or the optics of a telescope.
For the moment, he has to settle for his own fame and a star encased in concrete along the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The British billionaire was in Los Angeles last month for the unveiling of his star on that famous boulevard. While he was in the neighborhood, he popped up to the Mojave Air and Space Port, where Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company are working to make his dream of spaceflight a reality.
Given his early October prediction that Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity would fly to space in “weeks, not months,” one might have expected him to be here to view a spaceflight he has been promising for the past 14 years.
Alas, nothing so momentous occurred. It was apparently just a quick visit to the hangar which he chronicled in a blog post. The post included a video showing a virtual reality simulation of SpaceShipTwo Unity’s interior. Well, sort of…
Yes, I know. In lieu of the actual SpaceShipTwo interior, here’s our founder oohing and ahhing at a virtual reality simulation that only he can see on a little headset is more than a little underwhelming, to say the least. But, I guess you go with what you’ve got. And this was it.
The pictures accompanying the blog post are a bit more interesting. In one, Branson stands on a walkway overlooking the main work area of Virgin’s FAITH hangar. On the floor you can clearly see WhiteKnightTwo with a SpaceShipTwo (presumably <em>Unity</em>) right behind it. Both look like they are being worked on.
In another in lieu of photo, Branson is seen making an old-fashioned telephone call in a traditional red British telephone box that’s been installed on the FAITH walkway.
I suppose it’s what the Brits would call cheeky. But, that’s not the interesting part of the picture. Down below you can see the front end of a second SpaceShipTwo under construction. A total of two ships are being built in addition to the completed <em>Unity</em>.
It’s been a month since Branson’s “weeks not months” prediction without a SpaceShipTwo flight. And it’s been more than three months since the last flight in late July. The gaps between the first three powered tests were just under two months apiece.
During the July flight, the spacecraft fired its engine for 42 seconds and reached 32.3 miles (170,800 ft/52 km) in altitude. Getting the vehicle to some definition of space would require an engine burn of about 1 minute.
Depending upon which definition is used, space begins at either 50 miles (80.4 km), which was the U.S. Air Force standard for awarding astronaut wings to X-15 pilots, or 62.1 miles (100 km), which is the international definition known as the Karman line.
Virgin Galactic long advertised flights above the Karman line. However, the company’s agreements with passengers stipulate an altitude of at least 100 km (62.1 miles).
Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides has said he expects at least one more flight test by the end of the year. He recently said Virgin has plans to outfit the cabin behind the two pilots with six seats and mass simulators to approximate the weight of passengers.
The time since the July flight and Whitesides’ more cautious comments suggest much more preparation of the ship is needed before Unity makes a run at flying to space. Whitesides and other Virgin Galactic officials have long been more careful in setting timelines than Branson, whose dismal record is roughly 0-for-14 years.
There’s long been a debate over why Branson has been so off target in his statements. People have been split on whether he is misinformed about what’s going on in Mojave, or making stuff up in order to reassure ticket holders and investors.
Branson sometimes appears to hype progress in the flight test program and projects out a best-case scenario for when things will happen. The flaw in that thinking is that flight tests are specifically designed to find problems, which can necessitate lengthy delays as engineers address them.
In a recent story in The New Yorker, the billionaire defended his predictions as being motivational in nature. “If you’re an optimist and talk ahead of yourself, then everybody around you has got to catch up and try to get there,” Branson said.
Maybe. The problem is that redesigning the nitrous oxide tank to not explode, mitigating problems with an engine that causes excessive vibrations, and patching cracks in the mother ship — all problems engineers have faced since 2004 — take time and can not, and in fact, should not, be rushed.
Branson’s answer suggests another possibility about the flight test schedule, however. Perhaps his “weeks not months” comment was meant to encourage Virgin engineers to fix whatever problems they have found with SpaceShipTwo and get Unity back into powered flight as soon as they can.
There have been long gaps in SpaceShipTwo’s flight tests before. Following a near crash during a glide flight in September 2011, SpaceShipTwo Enterprise was not dropped from WhiteKnightTwo for another nine months.
Following a powered test and a glide flight in early January 2014, Enterprise was taken into the hanger for major modifications. It did not make another flight for six months.
Time will tell.