The morning of Dec. 3, 2016, began like so many others in Mojave. The first rays of dawn gave way to a brilliant sunrise that revealed a cloudless, clear blue sky over California’s High Desert.
This was hardly newsworthy. For most of the year, Mojave doesn’t really have weather, just temperatures and wind speeds. It had been literally freezing overnight; the mercury was at a nippy 28º F (-2.2º C) at 4 a.m. As for Mojave’s famous winds – an enemy of roofs, trees and big rigs, but the lifeblood of thousands of wind turbines that cover the landscape west of town – there really weren’t any. It was basically a flat calm.
Pete Siebold and Mike Alsbury heard the sound of hooks disengaging and felt a sharp jolt as SpaceShipTwo was released from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship. Relieved of a giant weight, WhiteKnightTwo shot upward as the spacecraft plunged toward the desert floor.
“Fire,” Siebold said as the shadow of one of WhiteKnightTwo’s wings passed across the cabin.
“Arm,” Alsbury responded. “Fire.”
The pilots were pushed back into their seats as SpaceShipTwo’s nylon-nitrous oxide hybrid engine ignited behind them, sending the ship soaring skyward on a pillar of flames.
Editor’s Note: SpaceShipOne would fly one more time, on Oct. 4, 2004, to claim the $10 million Ansari X Prize, before being retired and shipped off to be placed on permanent display the National Air & Space Museum.
Do you remember the optimism then? Do you recall promises by Burt Rutan and Richard Branson that they would soon inaugurate the era of space tourism with SpaceShipTwo? How it would all happen by 2007 or 2008?
Thirteen years, four deaths, three hospitalizations, one wrecked spaceship and numerous inaccurate predictions later, there has not been a single human suborbital space flight. Not one.
The very elements of SpaceShipOne that Rutan promoted as the safest innovations to come out of the program — the hybrid engine and feather reentry system — figured in the fatalities of the SpaceShipTwo program.
SpaceShipOne was a tremendous engineering achievement. And Scaled is justifiably proud of it.
But, it also turned out to be an extremely fragile thing upon which to base a commercial suborbital space tourism program. It bred a dangerous overconfidence and enshrined some poor engineering choices into the design of SpaceShipTwo.
The hybrid engine took a decade to scale up for SpaceShipTwo. It also claimed three lives in an explosion because Scaled had misplaced confidence in the safety of nitrous oxide.
Scaled Composites also lacked the required expertise to properly address pilot error in a human spaceship. When that was pointed out by FAA safety experts with experience on the space shuttle, George Nield issued a waiver instead of making Scaled perform the analysis properly. Whether a proper analysis would have prevented the loss of SpaceShipTwo Enterprise and Mike Alsbury is something we will never know.
So, this is a rather bittersweet anniversary. Scaled can certainly take pride in its accomplishments. It was the apex of Burt Rutan’s career. But, that pride is mixed with knowledge of all the pain and frustrations that occurred in the decade that followed. The loss of valued colleagues and the destruction of a ship engineers spent years building.
Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides spoke at the 20th Mars Society Convention last week where he gave an update on his company’s effort to reach space.
Whitesides said the company has “a very small number” of glide tests remaining for SpaceShipTwo Unity before the vehicle begins powered flights. He did not give a timeline for when Virgin Galactic would light the motor in flight.
Unity has conducted six glide flights since last December. The most recent one was on Aug. 4.
Whitesides showed a video of hot fire of the spacecraft’s hybrid engine. He said engineers had completed testing on the engine, which he called the most advanced hybrid in the world.
Two additional SpaceShipTwo vehicles are under construction at the Mojave Air and Space Port, he added. The cabin pieces of one of them were recently bonded together. The new vehicles will be ready for testing a year or two, Whitesides said.
As a Mojave resident, I can’t say I’m real thrilled by this change. It’s noisy enough around here during the day, what with the airplanes, rocket tests, sonic booms from Edwards, freight trains, the highway that runs through the middle of town, and random explosions from God knows what. The town’s got enough problems; why add to them?
The Sunday Times of London has an update on Virgin Galactic that seems to be based around an upcoming Brian Cox documentary on space tourism, which is set to air early next month in Britain.
Branson could be first in the mass tourism market despite a disastrous 2014 test flight in which a pilot died. Unity is to start rocket tests this autumn, and two more craft are under construction.
“We are hoping to be into space by the end of the year,” said Branson, who has spent £450m on the project. “The cost has been a lot more than we thought . . . but we can see the price falling and we could have 20 spaceships operating so that . . . enormous numbers of people could go into space.”
Former XCOR CEO Jay Gibson told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week that the cancellation of an engine contract by United Launch Alliance led the struggling Mojave-based company to lay off its remaining employees last month.
“We were a subcontractor, and in the days of continuing resolutions we felt like we had a commitment from our prime” for funding that he said would last a year or more. “With less than 30 days notice, we were told that funding was terminated.” (more…)
If Stratolaunch only had a rocket worthy of the ginormous carrier aircraft they built. No offense to Orbital ATK and the Pegasus XL, but that’s not what this thing was built for. Maybe they will develop one eventually.
Despite laying off its 21 remaining employees, XCOR Aerospace isn’t dead yet. But, it’s not in real good shape, either.
It turns out that a major blow to the company was the loss of a contract with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to develop an upper stage for the Vulcan booster.
The primary impetus for the layoffs, Acting CEO and XCOR Board member Michael Blum told me, is the loss of a contract for engine development that the company had with United Launch Alliance. “The proceeds should have been enough to fund the prototype of Lynx [the company’s planned spacecraft], but ULA decided they’re not going to continue funding the contract. So we find ourselves in a difficult financial situation where we need to raise money or find joint developments to continue.” ULA declined to comment. (more…)
At some point in the next six months, the Mojave Air and Space Port could experience something that not happened here in 13 long years: an actual spaceflight.
Richard Branson is predicting that Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity could reach space on a flight test from Mojave by December. For once, his prediction does not appear to be based on unrealistic hopes, the need to reassure customers about delays, or a complete misunderstanding of what is happening on the ground here.
In other words, it’s actually plausible. Whether it will happen on that schedule…that’s another question. Flight test is notoriously unpredictable and very tough on timetables.
After a decade of broken promises and delays, the next year could bring some very good news for New Mexico’s $225 million taxpayer-funded Spaceport America.
Anchor tenant Virgin Galactic’s lease payments are increasing. And Richard Branson’s prediction for the start of commercial spaceflights there in 2018 appear (for once) to be on the mark, barring major problems with SpaceShipTwo’s flight test program.
So, it would seem that at long last, New Mexico’s hard-pressed taxpayers will finally be off the hook for supporting the spaceport. Right?…I mean, right?
Video Caption: At Virgin Orbit, we test our rocket engines all the time. Here’s a video of a typical test, conducted at our facilities in Mojave, CA. In this video, we test throttling down our NewtonThree rocket engine–the single rocket engine that will power the main stage of our LauncherOne rocket.
Checking my messages on Wednesday at LAX after a long flight from back east, I was startled to learn that Paul Allen’s ginormous Stratolaunch aircraft had been rolled out of its hangar for the first time in Mojave while I was in transit.
I had been expecting some official roll-out ceremony later this year ala SpaceShipTwo where the press and public could get a good look at the twin fuselage, WhiteKnightTwo-on-steroids air-launch platform.
Masten Space Systems’ Xaero-B test vehicle was damaged during a flight at the Mojave Air and Space Port last month. The company says it has no plans to repair it at this time.
A source who requested anonymity reports the crash occurred on April 19. The vehicle rose about five to 10 feet off its launch pad, began to pitched over and then fell to the desert floor, the source said.