What The New Yorker Gets Wrong About the SpaceShipTwo Accident

SpaceShipTwo debris in storage. (Credit: NTSB)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Psychologists have identified five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These stages are clearly on display in Virgin Galactic’s Rocket Man, Nicholas Schmidle’s profile of Mark Stucky in The New Yorker. A substantial part of the story chronicles how the test pilot dealt with the death of his close friend, Mike Alsbury, in the breakup of SpaceShipTwo Enterprise during the vehicle’s fourth powered flight four years ago.

It’s a touching portrait of Stucky’s grief for his fellow Scaled Composites pilot, with whom he had flown while testing the suborbital spacecraft being developed for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. (Stucky later moved over to Virgin, which took over the SpaceShipTwo program after the accident, to test the second SpaceShipTwo, Unity.)

However, Schmidle tells only half the story in his otherwise insightful profile. He places nearly all the blame on Alsbury, while ignoring the findings of a nine-month federal investigation that identified systemic flaws in the development program and the government’s oversight that contributed to the accident.

It’s similar to the flawed, self-serving narrative that Branson used in his latest autobiography, “Finding My Virginity,” complete with a not-entirely-fair jab at the press coverage of the crash. The billionaire uses pilot error to obscure a decade of fatal mistakes and miscalculations.
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Paul Allen Passes Away From Cancer at 65

Paul G. Allen (By Miles Harris – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26491255)

Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen — who funded private spaceships, one of the largest aircraft in the world, and the search for life elsewhere in the Universe – has died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was 65.

“It is with deep sadness that we announce the death of @PaulGAllen, our founder and noted technologist, philanthropist, community builder, conservationist, musician and supporter of the arts, All of us who worked with Paul feel an inexpressible loss today,” Allen’s company, Vulcan, Inc., announced in a tweet.

Allen poured the billions he made from Microsoft into a number of business and philanthropic ventures, including three space projects. He spent $28 million to back Burt Rutan’s entry in the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million competition for the first privately-built crewed vehicle to reach space twice within a two-week period.

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Stratolaunch Aircraft Taxis at Mojave

The Stratolaunch carrier aircraft on runway 12-30 at the Mojave Air and Space Port during a taxi test on Friday. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Stratolaunch’s massive carrier aircraft performed a taxi test down runway 12-30 at the Mojave Air and Space Port on Friday afternoon.

The airplane, which is designed to air-launch rockets, appeared to make several short moves at the southeast end of the runway before beginning its taxi test. It stopped twice during the taxi test before arriving at the end of the runway.

The twin-fuselage plane veered to one side on several occasions during the test, resulting in the pilots correcting the vehicle’s path. It was not clear whether this movement was part of the test.

The aircraft, which has a wingspan of 385 ft (117.3 m), was towed backwards along the runway before being returned to its hangar.

Scaled Composites built the aircraft with funding from Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen.

Stratolaunch Announces New Launch Vehicles

Air-launched boosters (Credit: Stratolaunch)

SEATTLE, Wash. – August 20, 2018 (Stratolaunch PR) – Stratolaunch announces today its new family of launch vehicles that will enter regular service starting in 2020. The company’s unique air-launch system will use the world’s largest aircraft as a mobile launch platform, capable of deploying launch vehicles that will carry satellites to multiple orbits and inclinations on a single mission. With these new vehicles, Stratolaunch is poised to make access to space convenient, affordable, and routine.

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Mojave Moments: What Really Keeps the Spaceport in Operation

What is it that keeps the Mojave Air and Space Port operating?

Is it Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo? Paul Allen’s monster rocket launching airplane they call Birdzilla? Mojave’s amazing amenities and it warm, welcoming atmosphere that lead people to call it the Mayberry of the West?

Uhhh….no. Not even close.

It’s the last thing one would expect in conservative, oil-rich, get government off our back and let us do our own thing Kern County, the Texas of California.

Stratolaunch’s New Launch Payload: A Vehicle the Size of the Space Shuttle

Straolaunch aircraft on the Mojave runway. (Credit: Stratolaunch)

The Washington Post has a story about Stratolaunch that contains this interesting piece of news from backer Paul Allen and CEO Jean Floyd.

But Allen has even bigger ambitions for Stratolaunch and is considering pairing it with a new space shuttle that’s known inside the company as Black Ice….

“I would love to see us have a full reusable system and have weekly, if not more often, airport-style, repeatable operations going,” Allen said in an interview in his Seattle office.

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Video of Stratolaunch Taxi Tests in Mojave

Video Caption: The aircraft development team performed regression testing at the Mojave Air & Space Port on February 24-25, 2018. Ground speeds ranged from 10-40 knots during the test series.

Greetings From Mojave: Stratolaunch in the Wild, TSC Rebrands

Stratolaunch on the runway. (Credit: Scaled Composites)

Greetings from Ice Station Mojave!

We’re in the midst of what they call a polar vortex, so this week has been particularly cold. Today I believe it reached a high of only 43 F (6 C) and tonight we’re looking at a low of 23 F (-5 C) overnight. The winds were blowing off the mountains at 33 mph (53 kph) and gusting this morning and continued throughout the day.

Up until a couple of weeks ago, the winter had been rather dry and mild, especially compared with the cold, wet one we had last year. But, Old Man Winter has returned with an icy fury.

Despite the weather, Ken Brown and I ventured over to the spaceport to see the Stratolaunch aircraft parked outside its hangar with a fuel truck parked next to it. It’s quite a jaw-dropping sight to see outside in the wild, positively Spruce Goosian in its size and ambition (and, hopefully not, in its flight history). It ain’t nicknamed Birdzilla for nothing.

There are NOTAMS (Notice to Airmen) posted for Saturday and Sunday that indicate the tower will be open (unusual for the weekend) and Runway 12/30 is closed (ditto). So, I’m expecting Stratolaunch will be out on the runway doing some additional taxi tests. I’m guessing it’s too early for a flight by the Paul Allen-funded aircraft.

Driving past Virgin Galactic’s FAITH hangar on the way back from viewing Stratoluanch, I noticed a Spaceship Company logo on the building that I had not seen before.

Word is TSC is going thru a re-branding to separate it from Virgin Galactic. Richard Branson has been talking up supersonic passenger planes that he wants to build.

The Virgin Group has a memorandum of understanding with the government of Saudi Arabia for $1 billion investment in The Spaceship Company, Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit.

So, I imagine we’ll soon be seeing some new public relations materials from Virgin in the form of a video, press release, and so on announcing the re-branding.

Richard Branson’s Latest Memoir Gets Lost in Space

SpaceShipTwo Enterprise after being released for its final flight on Oct. 31, 2014. (Credit: Virgin Galactic/NTSB)

Mogul’s Account of Virgin Galactic Most Revealing for What It Doesn’t Say

Part 1 of 3

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Finding My Virginity: The New Autobiography
Richard Branson
Portfolio
Oct. 10, 2017
482 pages

One day in mid-2003, Virgin Atlantic pilot Alex Tai wandered into a hangar at Mojave Airport and discovered SpaceShipOne, a  suborbital rocket plane that Scaled Composites’ Founder Burt Rutan was secretly building to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize for the first privately-built crewed vehicle to reach space twice in two weeks.

The chance discovery would eventually solve separate problems the famed aircraft designer and Tai’s boss, Richard Branson, were trying to solve. Rutan’s spaceship was being funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, who wanted to win the prize but had no plans to finance a commercial follow-on spacecraft.

Four years earlier, Branson had registered a new company named Virgin Galactic Airways and set off in search of someone to build a vehicle capable of carrying passengers into space. Those efforts had come to naught until Tai made his discovery at the dusty airport in California’s High Desert.

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Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic Eye Human Spaceflights in 2018

New Shepard booster fires its engine just over the landing pad. (Credit: Blue Origin)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

While Boeing and SpaceX move toward flying astronauts to the International Space Station this year, there are two other companies working on restoring the ability to launch people into space from U.S. soil.

Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic aren’t attempting anything as ambitious as orbital flight. Their aim is to fly short suborbital hops that will give tourists and scientists several minutes of microgravity to float around and conduct experiments in.

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Scaled Composites Taxis Stratolaunch

Stratolaunch on the runway. (Credit: Scaled Composites)

MOJAVE, Calif. (Scaled Composites PR) — This past weekend, the Scaled test team successfully executed a low speed taxi test of the Stratolaunch aircraft. During this initial taxi test, the aircraft moved down the runway under its own power for the first time. These first test points have demonstrated the fundamental ability to control the aircraft speed and direction on the runway.

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A Niche in Time: One Chute

SpaceShipTwo after being released for its final flight on March 31, 2014. (Credit: Virgin Galactic/NTSB)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

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.

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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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