It was a flight 22 months in the making. But, when it came time for the rubber to meet the oxidizer, the whole thing suddenly flamed out.
The hybrid engine on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity failed to fire properly on Saturday, sending the suborbital rocket plane, pilots David Mackay and C.J. Sturckow and a load of NASA-sponsored experiments into a rapid descent and landing back at Spaceport America, instead of a graceful parabolic arc into suborbital space.
Today, Sept. 27, marks the 15th anniversary of Richard Branson announcing the launch of Virgin Galactic Airways. It’s been a long, winding road between that day and today, filled with many broken promises, missed deadlines, fatal accidents and a pair of spaceflights.
This year actually marks a double anniversary: it’s been 20 years since Branson registered the company and began searching for a vehicle the company could use to fly tourists into suborbital space.
Below is a timeline of the important events over that period.
Ten years ago, Mohamed Badawy Al-Husseiny was sitting next to Sir Richard Branson at the Oshkosh air show signing a deal on behalf of Abu Dhabi to invest $280 million in the British billionaire’s space tourism venture, Virgin Galactic.
The wealthy CEO of Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund, aabar investments, likely had dreams of gazing down on Earth while floating in space aboard Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo.
Today, Al-Husseiny is sitting in a jail cell serving a 10-year sentence for financial crimes. He also has been implicated in one of the largest financial frauds in history involving the theft of more than $4 billion.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is looking to host flights of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, The Nationalreports.
Mohammad Al Ahbabi, director of the UAE Space Agency, said the organisation is working with Virgin Galactic on a bid to operate tourist space flights from Al Ain International Airport in the coming years….
“The reason why the company opted for Al Ain airport is that it is less crowded than other UAE airports, which are scheduled with thousands of flights.”
Airbus has used Al Ain airport to stress test its new aircraft in high summer temperatures, including the wide-body A350.
It was chosen for its hot, dry conditions and relatively quiet runways.
Abu Dhabi is part-owner of Virgin Galactic having invested $390 million in the company through its sovereign wealth fund, Mubadala Investment Company (formerly known as aabar Investments).
Finding My Virginity: The New Autobiography Richard Branson Portfolio Oct. 10, 2017 482 pages
In his new book, Richard Branson recounts that on the morning of Oct. 31, 2014, he was on his private Caribbean island in a state of “schoolboy excitement.” The reason? Three time zones away in California’s Mojave Desert, Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites were conducting the longest and most ambitious flight test of the SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism vehicle.
The nonbinding memorandum of understanding involving $1 billion in investment from Saudi Arabia is Richard Branson’s latest success in obtaining financial support from governments for his Virgin Group’s space companies.
The table below shows funding invested directly into the group’s space ventures and indirectly for infrastructure.
VIRGIN GROUP SPACE COMPANIES — DIRECT & INDIRECT GOVERNMENT INVESTMENT
Custom built spaceport named Spaceport America constructed on 18,000 acres of land — Virgin Galactic signed 20 year lease to serve as anchor tenant
Government-owned sovereign wealth fund Aabar Investments obtained 31.6 percent share of Virgin Galactic — plans for a spaceport where SpaceShipTwo would fly in Dubai — future commitment of $100 million more when Virgin Galactic developed viable plan for small-satellite booster (LauncherOne)
Aabar Investments increased share of Virgin Galactic to 37.6 percent
Under non-binding MOU, government-run Public Investment Fund (PIC) would obtain undisclosed share of three Virgin Group space companies: Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit and The Spaceship Company — Virgin Group to maintain majority ownership
PIC has an option to invest nearly a half-billion more in Virgin Group space services
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, October 26, 2017 — The Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia and Virgin Group (Virgin), have signed a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for a partnership under which PIF intends to invest approximately $1 billion into Virgin Galactic, The Spaceship Company and Virgin Orbit, with an option for $480 million of future additional investment in space services.
LONG BEACH, Calif. (Virgin Orbit PR) — Virgin Group and Aabar are pleased to announce the appointment of Dan Hart as CEO of Virgin Orbit.
Dan joined the organization in March as President after a distinguished 34 years at Boeing, where he was responsible for all of the company’s satellite programs for the US government and several allied countries.
His appointment is the final step in the planned establishment of Virgin Orbit as an independent space access company dedicated to serving the small satellite market. (more…)
The scandal engulfing Aabar Investments just keeps getting stranger and stranger.
The U.S. Justice Department has charged that some of the funds allegedly stolen from the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund 1MDB ended up funding The Wolf of Wall Street, a hit movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio as corrupt Wall Street stock broker Jordan Belfort. (more…)
It’s been quite a while since we’ve checked in with our friends over at Aabar Investments, the Abu Dhabi-owned sovereign wealth fund that invested $390 million into Virgin Galactic in exchange for a 37.6-percent share of Sir Richard Branson’s space line.
And boy, do I wish we had checked in sooner. There’s been some real serious [expletive deleted] going down with that investment over the past year. Real serious you know what.
Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides was in Abu Dhabi this week for a space conference, where he gave an update on the company’s progress since the October 2014 that destroyed the first SpaceShipTwo and killed pilot Mike Alsbury.
About 25 of 700 fee-paying clients withdrew from the program after the crash in the Mojave Desert in California caused it to be put on hold just months before the first commercial flight, Virgin Galactic Chief Executive Officer George Whitesides said Tuesday in Abu Dhabi.
“We had a little dip right after the accident, but honestly we’re almost all the way back now,” Whitesides said at a conference organized by the International Civil Aviation Organization and United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. “It’s looking very good. There’s a global desire to experience space.”
Virgin Galactic said it had “more than 700 Future Astronauts” signed up as of April 2014. In media appearances in the months before the accident, Branson put the number of tickets sold at or close to 800.
Whitesides also said that Virgin Galactic’s partner, Aabar Investments, might increase its stake in the company.
When asked whether Aabar is planning to increase or decrease their stake in the company, he said they had meetings with their representatives and said the responses had been positive.
In 2009, Aabar paid $280 million for a 31.8 percent stake in Virgin Galactic. The government-owned sovereign wealth fund upped its stake to 37.8 percent with an additional investment of $110 million in 2011.
Reuters reports that Virgin Galactic partner Aabar Investments is trying to borrow $2.5 billion to refinance a loan that is due in April.
Aabar has a chequered past, having borrowed aggressively to build up its holdings around the turn of the decade but then suffering heavy losses as investments turned sour. For example, IPIC’s 2011 net profit was all but wiped out due to losses worth $3.42 billion by Aabar’s holdings in German carmaker Daimler and UniCredit.
It has since kept a lower profile as it seeks to repair its reputation within Abu Dhabi and manage its existing commitments….
The 2013 loan was split between tranches lasting three and five years, which were each denominated in dollars, UAE dirhams and euros. Among the banks to have backed the loan were Bank of America-Merrill Lynch, HSBC, JP Morgan and National Bank of Abu Dhabi, according to Thomson Reuters data.
MOJAVE, Calif., November 9, 2015 (Virgin Galactic PR) – Virgin Galactic, the privately funded space company owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments PJS, is pleased to announce the appointment of its newest pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Kelly Latimer, US Air Force, Ret. A former combat veteran and retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, Latimer joins Virgin Galactic with extensive experience with heavy aircraft and as an experimental test pilot for NASA, Boeing, and the US Air Force.
Latimer was the first female research test pilot hired by NASA’s Dryden (now Armstrong) Flight Research Center, where she conducted experimental flight test and test support on the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) 747SP, T-38, C-17, 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, BE200 and T-34 for various NASA research projects.
Mike Alsbury’s day began with a 3 a.m. wake up at his home in Tehachapi, Calif. He showered, dressed and ate a breakfast that likely consisted of an apple and a granola bar.
Alsbury rarely awoke at so early; but this Oct. 31 was a flight test day. That meant a lot of people were getting up early for the latest milestone in the Tier 1B program. At least that’s what they called it at Alsbury’s employer, Scaled Composites. The rest of the world knew it as WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo – the foundation of Sir Richard Branson’s suborbital space tourism program. Scaled built and tested the vehicles for the British billionaire’s spaceline, Virgin Galactic.
If the current schedule holds, Virgin Galactic’s revamped LauncherOne program will enter commercial service sometime in 2018 after roughly a decade of development. During that period, the program has been redefined several times, lost two of the key people hired to lead it, and changed its launch platform from WhiteKnightTwo to a jumbo jet. The estimates for the initial flight tests also have slipped by about four years from 2013 to 2017.
Below is a timeline of the program’s major events, milestones, announcements, hires and departures, and other things. Feel free to let me know if I’ve missed anything significant.