Review: Rocket Billionaires Elon Musk & Jeff Bezos Battle for Control of Space

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Rocket Billionaires: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the New Space Race
by Tim Fernholz
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018
304 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-328-66223-1
US$28

In 2004, a small vehicle named SpaceShipOne built by Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites and funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen flew three suborbital flights, becoming the first privately-built crewed craft to exit the Earth’s atmosphere. For their efforts, Rutan and Allen won the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

Rutan quickly teamed with another billionaire, Richard Branson, to build a successor vehicle named SpaceShipTwo for Virgin Galactic that would carry two pilots and six passengers on commercial suborbital flights as early as 2007. It didn’t quite work out as planned; 14 years later, SpaceShipTwo hasn’t flown anyone to space.

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The Adventures of SpaceShipTwo: Inverted Flight, Wonky Gyros & an Impatient Billionaire

SpaceShipTwo glides to a landing at Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Nicholas Schmidle has an interesting profile of Virgin Galactic test pilot Mark Stucky in the New Yorker that sheds some light on what’s been going on at Richard Branson’s space company. I’ve excerpted some interesting passages below.

If you’ve been watching the videos of  SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity‘s first three powered flights and thinking to yourself, Gee, it looks like that thing really wants to roll…well, you’d be right. Here’s an account of the first flight on April 5.
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Branson Honored for Space Efforts at Apollo Celebration Awards Ceremony

Richard Branson (l) and George Whitesides (r) walk with SpaceShipTwo pilots David Mackay and Mark Stucky after a successful glide flight. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson was one of three people honored for contributions to further space exploration during the Apollo Celebration Gala held at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Saturday.

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Southern Road to Spaceport America Nearly Completed

Sunset at the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space” terminal hangar facility at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

The long-awaited southern road that will cut travel time between Las Cruces and Spaceport America is nearing completion, the Las Cruces Sun-News reports.

Finally, after years of delays and uncertainties, the roughly 24-mile-long road is paved. Some details remain in the overall project, which Doña Ana County officials expect to be completed in August.

Doña Ana County Manager Fernando Macias said he drove the road on July 9 to see how it looked.

“From my perspective, it’s 98 percent complete,” he said. “Maybe a little bit of touch-ups (are needed) as we go along because we haven’t technically accepted the road or accepted the finality of the project.”

For years, there’s been a dirt road along the southern route, which stretches from the Upham Exit of Interstate 25 to the spaceport. But it was in poor condition, and drivers, especially those in passenger cars, found it impassable. Even people driving trucks reported frequent flat tires.

Currently, motorists must drive north of the spaceport on I-25 to Truth or Consequences and then double back on local roads to reach the spaceport.

The $14 million project is being paid for by the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, which runs Spaceport America. The state of New Mexico has spent about $225 million on the spaceport project, whose anchor tenant is Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic continues to test SpaceShipTwo Unity at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The ship is designed to carry six passengers and two pilots on suborbital flights.

 

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.

The Future Just Ain’t What It Used To Be: Space Tourism Edition

White Knight taxis with SpaceShipOne on June 21, 2004. (Credit: John Criswick)

On this date in 2004, Mike Melvill lit the candle on SpaceShipOne as soared into history as the first astronaut to fly a privately-built spacecraft to space.

Fourteen years. It seems like only a lifetime ago.

I was on the flight line that day (I’m the guy with the video camera) not far from where I write this today.  The excitement and optimism of that day — that feeling that a new era of spaceflight would soon be upon us — was palpable. The future was within our grasp.

The last 14 years have been a lot like the movie, “Groundhog Day.” Not in the sense of the same day being repeated endlessly, but the same old promises being made over and over. And still, space tourism remains just out of our grasp.

What went wrong? It’s a question I’ve pondered as I’ve watched the setbacks and the tragedies unfold here in Mojave. The answer is complex, but in its simplest form it can be summed up as follows:

Although SpaceShipOne winning the Ansari X Prize was an enormously inspiring event, it produced immature and poorly understood technology and bred a dangerous overconfidence in its builders that contributed to two fatal accidents. Government oversight regulations ignored safety lessons learned in decades of human spaceflight.

There are no shortcuts in this business. And the moment you think you’ve got it all figured out is when you need to be most on guard. These are lessons we seem doomed to learn anew over and over again.

As I said, the truth is more complicated. Below are some stories I’ve written over the years exploring what went wrong.

Stories

Finding My Virginity Book Review (Jan. 8-10, 2018)

A Niche in Time Series (Sept. 25 – Oct. 3, 2017)

Weekend Reading: Spaceport America, SpaceX, LightSail 2 & More

Richard Branson and his children hang out with Project Bandaloop dancers during the dedication of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space facility in October 2011. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Dream a Little Dream of Me: SpaceX’s launch of Bangladesh’s “dream” satellite, Bangabandhu 1, has them celebrating in Dhaka. https://www.thedailystar.net/science/space-science/bangladesh-bd-first-commercial-satellite-bangabandhu-1-on-way-orbit-after-successful-launch-space-spacex-florida-us-1575244

Musk’s Big Promises for F9 B2: Crazy Elon’s prices are so low they’re insane! https://www.investors.com/news/spacex-elon-musk-predictions-reusable-falcon9-lower-costs/

A Shot of Maple Syrup, Coming Right Up: Nick Rose samples the cuisine for David Saint-Jacques’ upcoming mission to the International Space Station. https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/nekwyz/canada-astronaut-food-david-saint-jacques-perspective-space

All Quiet on the Spaceport Front: Maggie Grimason visits Truth or Consequences and finds patience is wearing thin. https://undark.org/article/spaceport-america-new-mexico/

Let there be LightSail: Jason Davis has an update on The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2, whose launch aboard Falcon Heavy is now set for the Fall.
http://www.planetary.org/blogs/jason-davis/2018/20180511-lightsail2-launch-slip.html

Kenya Enters the CubeSat Age: A homegrown satellite is launched from the International Space Station. https://qz.com/1275698/kenya-to-launch-first-satellite-into-space/

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Powered Flight Set for Thursday Morning

SpaceShipTwo flies under power for the third time in January 2014. (Credit: Ken Brown)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The preliminaries are over. And now the moment of truth has arrived for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Almost 3.5 years after SpaceShipTwo Enterprise broke up during a flight test on Halloween 2014, the company is scheduled to conduct the first powered flight of SpaceShipTwo Unity later this morning from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The test was preceded by seven glide flights.

I’ll be providing live updates on the flight on Twitter @spacecom.

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Mojave Gets a Royal Visit

Mojave control tower at sunset. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Mojave is a quiet little town that people don’t visit so much as stop at just long enough for gas, food or a bathroom break. It seems like the only folks who stay overnight have business at the spaceport or are long-haul truckers who are not here for the town’s non-existent nightlife.

So, the arrival of Richard Branson’s private jet — the one with the Virgin Galactic eye on the tail — on Saturday afternoon was quite the surprise. Normally he’s here to watch a test flight of SpaceShipTwo, but there was no sign that one would take place over the long Easter weekend.

The following day, the jet was still parked outside Virgin’s FAITH facility, but it was surrounded by a dozen or more SUVs right there on the ramp. Something was going on over there, but it was hard to know what.

On Monday, we got an answer. The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, was here to see his nation’s latest investment. Last fall, Saudi Arabia signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to invest $1 billion with an option for $480 million more in Branson’s three space companies — Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit and The Spaceship Company.

Photographs of the visit (here and here) show that Saudi Arabia’s symbols now adorn Virgin’s vehicles. The kingdom’s official seal can be seen on SpaceShipTwo’s nose and a model of a hyperloop vehicle for Virgin Hyperloop One. The logo of Vision 2030 — Saudi Arabia’s ambitious effort to diversify its economy away from oil — can be seen on the side of the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.

There was also the following information from a Saudi news report:

And for the first time, Virgin Galactic unveiled new and unique aircraft fuel compartments, in addition to a presentation on spacecraft that will enter commercial services.

The officials reviewed the areas of existing investment partnership, ways of developing them especially in space services, opportunities for deepening cooperation in modern technologies through research, manufacturing, and training Saudi youths, and transforming the Kingdom from a consumer to a producer of technology.

I’m sure we’ll get more information from Virgin soon.

Branson Talks About Space Tourism, Hotels Around the Moon

Video Caption: Billionaire Richard Branson has set up Virgin Galactic as part of his dream to conquer the final frontier. But it’s also a bet that could land him at the forefront of a new business: space tourism.

From the Series: Billionaire Space Club http://bit.ly/2IcWcXA

Editor’s Note: It’s sad the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space remains empty 6.5 years after they dedicated the structure.

New Mexico Pours $17 Million More into Spaceport America

Sunset at the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space” terminal hangar facility at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

The New Mexico Legislature was generous to Spaceport America this year, providing nearly $17 million to pay for operating expenses and a series of upgrades designed to allow the struggling facility to attract more tenants.

The funding includes $10 million for a new satellite testing and development hangar, $5 million for a fuel farm, $500,000 for a launch vehicle payload integration facility, and $500,000 to repair and upgrade “electrical, fire suppression, water, sewer, security, mission control, heating, ventilation and air conditioning and building systems.”

The appropriation for the new hangar is contingent on the New Mexico Spaceport Authority contracting with a tenant that specializes in advanced aerospace products and technologies.

The spaceport also received $975,900 from the state’s general fund to fund its operations.

Spaceport America has struggled due to more than a decades of delays that have plagued anchor tenant Virgin Galactic. Richard Branson’s suborbital space tourism company is continuing to test SpaceShipTwo Unity at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The company has not set a date for the start of commercial operations in New Mexico.

 

NM Governor Signs Spaceport America Secrecy Bill

Sunset at the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space” terminal hangar facility at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez has signed a bill that exempts key information about Virgin Galactic and other tenants and customers at the publicly-funded Spaceport America.

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George Nield to Retire from FAA AST

FAA AST’s George Nield

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

George Nield, who has overseen commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the past decade, will be retiring at the end of March, according to SpacePolicyOnline.com.

In his position as associate administration for the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), Nield has overseen the granting of launch licenses and experimental permits to Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Blue Origin, ULA, Orbital ATK and other commercial space companies.

Nield has been credited with as being an effective champion of commercial space since joining FAA AST as deputy associate administrator in 2003. He was elevated to his current position upon the retirement of Patti Grace Smith in 2008.

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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.

Planetary Resources Hits Bump in the Road

Arkyd-6 spacecraft (Credit: Planetary Resources)

Alan Boyle at GeekWire reports that asteroid mining company Planetary Resources has been forced to make some cutbacks.

A spokeswoman for Planetary Resources, Stacey Tearne, told GeekWire that financial challenges have forced the company to focus on leveraging the Arkyd-6 mission for near-term revenue — apparently by selling imagery and data.

“Planetary Resources missed a fundraising milestone,” Tearne explained in an email. “The company remains committed to utilizing the resources from space to further explore space, but is focusing on near-term revenue streams by maximizing the opportunity of having a spacecraft in orbit.”

Tearne said no further information was available, and did not address questions about employment cutbacks. However, reports from other sources in the space community suggest there have been notable job reductions. For what it’s worth, Planetary Resources had more than 70 employees at last report.

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