A Look at the History of Suborbital Spaceflight

Neil Armstrong with the X-15 on the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

With Richard Branson once again predicting that Virgin Galactic will fly SpaeShipTwo into space before the end of the year, it seems like a good time to take a look at the history of suborbital spaceflight.

The number of manned suborbital flights varies depending upon the definition you use. The internationally recognized boundary is 100 km (62.1 miles), which is also known as the Karman line. The U.S. Air Force awarded astronaut wings to any pilot who exceeded 80.5 km (50 miles).

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Mojave Journal: Good Rockets are Hard to Find

Stratolaunch carrier aircraft rolled out of its hangar for the first time. (Credit: Stratolaunch)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

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.

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New Stratolaunch Photos Show World’s Largest Aircraft

Carrier aircraft cabin and wing (Credit: Stratolaunch)

Stratolaunch has revamped its website with some new photos of its gigantic carrier aircraft under construction at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

Carrier aircraft cabin (Credit: Stratolaunch)

The twin fuselage airplane will be the largest aircraft in the world, with a 385-foot wing span. Powered by six Boeing 747 engines, the aircraft will have a payload of more than 500,000 lbs. (226,796 kg) and an operational range of approximately 2,000 nautical miles (3,715 km).

Aircraft undercarriage (Credit: Stratolaunch)

The Stratolaunch aircraft is designed to air launch launch vehicles. The company has an agreement with Orbital ATK to use its Pegasus small-satellite booster.

Carrier aircraft with Pegasus boosters (Credit: Stratolaunch)

In March, billionaire backer Paul Allen has said he hopes the carrier aircraft will make its first flight test by the end of the year.

Carrier aircraft tail (Credit: Stratolaunch)

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World’s Largest Airplane to Launch Pegasus XL Boosters

Conceptual rendering of the Stratolaunch Aircraft and the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL air-launch vehicles (Credit: Vulcan Aerospace)
Conceptual rendering of the Stratolaunch Aircraft and the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL air-launch vehicles (Credit: Vulcan Aerospace)

DULLES, Va., 6 October, 2016 (Orbital ATK/Vulcan Aerospace PR) – Orbital ATK, Inc. (NYSE: OA), a global leader in aerospace and defense technologies, and Stratolaunch Systems today announced a multi-year production-based partnership that will offer significant cost advantages to air-launch customers. Stratolaunch Systems, in cooperation with Vulcan Aerospace, is responsible for realizing Paul G. Allen’s vision for space.

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Future Imperfect: The Ansari XPrize, SpaceShipOne & Private Spaceflight

how_make_spaceship_coverHow to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, An Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight
by Julian Guthrie
Penguin Press, 2016
Hardcover, 448 pages
ISBN 978-1-59420-672-6
US $28/Canada $37

Reviewed by Douglas Messier

On Sept. 8, I arrived home at about half past noon to find a package sitting on my doorstep. It was a review copy of a new book by Julian Guthrie about the Ansari XPrize and SpaceShipOne titled, How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, An Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight.

I laughed. The timing was perfect. Ken Brown and I had just spent five hours in the desert — most of them in the rising heat of a late summer day — waiting for WhiteKnightTwo to take off carrying SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity on its first captive carry test flight.

It was the first flight in nearly two years of a SpaceShipTwo vehicle since Unity’s sister ship, VSS Enterprise, had broken up during a Halloween test flight, killing co-pilot Mike Alsbury. Ken and I had been there on that day, too.

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Firefly Planned to Air Launch Small Satellite Booster

firefly_space_systems_logoAn alert reader who goes by the pseudonym “redyns” has pointed out something very interesting about Firefly Space Systems, the company that on Thursday is reported to have laid off its entire staff due to financial difficulties.

In April, Firefly and NASA modified a contract under the Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) program from land launch to air launch, according to the USASpending.gov website. The company’s Firefly α small satellite booster was originally designed to launch vertically from the ground.

The website shows that Firefly was awarded a VCLS contract worth $4.4 million on Sept. 30, 2015. A second contract modification has been made to “deobligate” $2.5 million in funding from the contract. That modification was made on Sept. 27, two days before the layoffs.

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Beames Leaves Paul Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace

The new design of Stratolaunch's carrier aircraft. (Credit: Stratolaunch Systems)
The new design of Stratolaunch’s carrier aircraft. (Credit: Stratolaunch Systems)

Chuck Beames is out as president of Paul Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace and executive director of Stratolaunch Systems.

Alan Boyle reports that Beames is being replaced by Jean Floyd, who is CEO of Stratolaunch Systems. Floyd will serve as interim executive director of Vulcan Aerospace. Beames has left the company.

“Now that we’re closer to realizing our vision for convenient and affordable access to low Earth orbit (LEO) and moving into a more operational phase of our program, we are making some changes to our leadership,” Allen wrote in an email to employees.

Floyd joined Stratolaunch in 2015 after spending 25 years at Orbital ATK, where he led “air-launched space vehicle development, launch operations, and spacecraft programs,:” Allen said in his email.

Interestingly, Allen called Orbital ATK “a valued partner of Vulcan Aerospace.” This could be a clue to a mystery that has engulfed Stratolaunch Systems over the past several years: what rocket will be air launched from the company’s massive carrier aircraft.

The company earlier had agreements with SpaceX and later Orbital Sciences Corporation before it merged with ATK. Both agreements were terminated. It’s possible there is a new agreement with Orbital ATK to produce a booster.

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Entrepreneurial Lingo Lesson: The Pivot

twist_chubby1_disrupt copy
First in an irregular series on entrepreneurial buzz words

Come on let’s pivot again,
Like we did last quarter!
Yeaaah, let’s pivot again,
Like we did last year!

Do you remember when,
ROI was really hummin’,
Yeaaaah, let’s pivot again,
Pivotin’ time is here!

Heeee, and round and round til IPO we go!
Oh, baby, make those investors love us so!

Let’s pivot again,
Like we did last quarter!
Yeaaah, let’s pivot again,
Like we did last year!

There comes a time in the existence of many startups when there an urgent need to change direction. You set up the company to pursue a goal, but for one reason or several — a lack of a market, shortage of investment, regulatory hurdles, a flawed concept — you have to direct all that talent, technology and enthusiasm toward a new objective that will keep the company in operation.

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A Tale of Two Prizes

SpaceShipOne on the floor beside the Spirit of St. Louis of the National Air & Space Museum. (Credit: National Air & Space Museum)
SpaceShipOne on the floor beside the Spirit of St. Louis of the National Air & Space Museum. (Credit: National Air & Space Museum)

Two major flight-related anniversaries are being celebrated this week. Today marks the 89th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic aboard the Spirit of St. Louis. Lucky Lindy took off from New York on this date and arrived in Paris some 33.5 hours later, claiming the $25,000 Orteig Prize.

Wednesday was the 20th anniversary of the launch of X Prize (later Ansari X Prize). Inspired by the Orteig Prize, it offered $10 million for the first privately build vehicle to fly to suborbital space twice within two weeks. The Ansari X Prize was won in October 2004 by a team led by Burt Rutan and Paul Allen with SpaceShipOne.

After Lindbergh’s flight, a public that had previously shunned commercial aviation embraced it with a passion. Following the Ansari X Prize, Richard Branson vowed to begin flying tourists to space aboard a successor vehicle, SpaceShipTwo, within three years. Nearly a dozen years and four deaths later, Branson has yet to fulfill this promise.

The SpaceShipTwo program has now taken longer than it took for NASA to go from President John F. Kennedy proposal to land a man on the moon to the completion of the program with the splashdown of Apollo 17. NASA launched the space shuttle Columbia exactly 20 years after the first spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin.

So, why have things taken so long? And why did one prize succeed beyond the dreams of its sponsor, while the space prize it inspired has promised so few practical results? The answer is a complex one that I addressed back in March in a story titled, “Prizes, Technology and Safety.” I’ve republished the story below with links to other posts in a series about flight safety.

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Boldly Going Where 14 Men Have Gone Before

For nearly a dozen years, Virgin Galactic has used the number of individuals who have flown into space as a target to shoot for once the company began suborbital space tourism service. Virgin promised to double the number, which was around 500 when the company launched in 2004, within the first year of operation. That year was originally targeted for 2007 in the confident days after the success of SpaceShipOne.

That goal has long since faded away, and it’s unlikely Virgin will double the number of space travelers during the first year. In any event, the number of space travelers cited by Virgin has always been a bit misleading. The company’s well heeled customers, who are paying upwards of $250,000 per flight, will actually be joining a much more elite group on their suborbital flights.

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Will Stratolaunch Have its Wings Clipped?

Stratolaunch carrier aircraft under construction in Mojave, Calif. (Credit: Stratolaunch Systems)
Stratolaunch carrier aircraft under construction in Mojave, Calif. (Credit: Stratolaunch Systems)

During the New Space Conference in July, I asked Vulcan Aerospace President Chuck Beames whether the company had made a fundamental mistake with Stratolaunch Systems. Shouldn’t it have figured out what sort of air-launch rocket it was going to use first before building the world’s largest aircraft to launch it from?

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SpaceShipTwo’s PF-04: A High-Risk Flight

Mike Alsbury
Mike Alsbury

Part 1 in a Series

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

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.

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Mojave Journal: The Ansari X Prize’s Awkward Family Reunion

Ansari X Prize 10th anniversary panel discussion on Oct. 4, 2014.
Ansari X Prize 10th anniversary panel discussion on Oct. 4, 2014.

One Year Ago, the Ansari X Prize Turned 10
It Was an Uncomfortable Birthday

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The planes kept coming and coming. One after another, they swooped out of a blue desert sky and touched down on the runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port. By mid-morning there were at least a dozen private jets stretched along the flight line running east from the Voyager restaurant toward the control tower. And even more were on their way.

And to what did Mojave owe this ostentatious display of wealth by the 1 percenters? They had come to the sun-splashed spaceport last Oct. 4 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Ansari X Prize. A decade earlier, Burt Rutan and his Paul Allen-funded team had won $10 million for sending the first privately-built manned vehicle into space twice within a two-week period.

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The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be: SpaceShipOne & the Triumph of Hype

Mike Melvill stands atop SpaceShipOne after a suborbital flight on Sept. 29, 2004. (Credit: RenegadeAven)
Mike Melvill stands atop SpaceShipOne after a suborbital flight on Sept. 29, 2004. (Credit: RenegadeAven)

Eleven years ago today, Brian Binnie flew SpaceShipOne to  an altitude  of 112.014 km (69.6 miles),  breaking a record of 107.8 km (67 miles) set by Joe Walker in the X-15 rocket plane 41 years earlier. As Binnie landed the small, experimental space plane at the Mojave Air and Space Port before a cheering crowd, he clinched the $10 million Ansari X Prize for Burt Rutan and his financial backer, Paul Allen.

The air during the post flight events was full of promises, boasts and hopes that today appear positively cringe worthy.

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Space Symposium Launch Vehicle Panel

31_space_symposium350
The 31st Space Symposium is taking place all week in Colorado Springs. It’s already generated some news, with ULA unveiling its new launch vehicle [here and here], Paul Allen demanding the company change the rocket’s name, and Rocket Lab showing off its electric motor.

I wasn’t able to attend this year, but I’ve been monitoring the events via Twitter.  Today’s most interesting session appears to have been a launch vehicle panel that included Aerojet Rocketdyne, Arianespace, Blue Origin, Orbital ATK, SpaceX and ULA.

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