Branson’s Autobiography Part II: A Bad Day at Koehn Lake

SpaceShipTwo breaks up after the premature deployment of its feather system. (Credit: MARS Scientific/NTSB)

Part 2 of 3

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

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.

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Branson Back to Making Predictions About SpaceShipTwo’s Schedule

Richard Branson and George Whitesides gave out at SpaceShipTwo after it came to a stop. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Now that the second SpaceShipTwo Unity has five glide flights under its belt, the “we’ll fly when we’re ready, we don’t make predictions” era appears to be officially over at Virgin Galactic.

“I certainly would be very disappointed if I don’t go up next year. And I would hope it’s earlier than later in the year,” Richard Branson told British GQ. “The programme says that we should be [testing] in space by December, as long as we don’t have any setbacks between now and then.”

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Questions Raised Over Brian Cox Documentary on Virgin Galactic & Commercial Space

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By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Back in February, Professor Brian Cox traveled here to Mojave with his friends Richard and Sam Branson to watch the third glide flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity.

Bowled over by what he saw even before the suborbital tourism vehicle glided overhead, Cox gave what amounted to a rousing endorsement of Virgin Galactic and SpaceShipTwo to a gathering of company employees.

“People ask me a lot because I’m a space geek and I’m obviously an evangelist for space, ‘Would you fly to space?” Cox said with Richard Branson seated beside him. “And I’ve always said, ‘Well yes and no, because in some sense it’s a dangerous thing to do.’ However, the moment I walked in this hangar and saw that aircraft, I thought, I want to get on that aircraft. So the answer is now is 100 percent yes.”

What was not widely known at the time was that Cox was filming a BBC-commissioned documentary about commercial space. And the company the corporation commissioned to co-produce it, Sundog Pictures, is owned and run by none other than Cox’s good friend, Sam Branson.

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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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SpaceShipTwo Nearly Crashed in 2011

SpaceShipTwo, ready for its closeup. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
SpaceShipTwo, ready for its closeup. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Ship Entered Inverted Flat Spin
Officials Downplayed Incident at Time
Near Disaster Cancelled Glide Flight at Spaceport America

The SpaceShipTwo vehicle that crashed one year ago nearly met its end three years earlier during a hair-raising flight test that officials at builder Scaled Composites and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic downplayed at the time, according to documents released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

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Virgin Galactic Spins Its Way Back to Rubber Engine for SpaceShipTwo

SpaceShipTwo in powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo in powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Despite Richard Branson’s increasingly dire pronouncements (The Time for Climate Action is Now) about how rising global temperatures and sea levels threaten the planet (and his private island home), it looks as if Virgin Galactic will go back to using a carbon spewing rubber hybrid rocket engine to power SpaceShipTwo.

That’s the word from Virgin Galactic officials in Mojave, who say that the rubber/nitrous oxide engine they previously abandoned is now performing better than the supposedly superior nylon/nitrous oxide engine they abandoned it for in May 2014. It’s not entirely certain, but it looks that way.

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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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BREAKING NEWS: Jim Tighe to Depart Scaled Composites — UPDATED

SpaceShipTwo on a glide flight with WhiteKnightTwo above it. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
SpaceShipTwo on a glide flight with WhiteKnightTwo above it. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Updated with statement from Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The chief aerodynamicist credited with designing SpaceShipTwo is departing the program on the eve of a crucial series of flight tests designed that Virgin Galactic hopes will lead to the start of commercial suborbital space tourism operations early next year.

Multiple sources have confirmed that Jim Tighe announced on Thursday that he would be leaving his position as chief aerodynamicist at Scaled Composites in two weeks for a job at an unnamed aerospace company. It is not clear what prompted the move.

Update: Reports indicate Tighe will be working for an aviation start-up based in Silicon Valley.

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Holly Branson Likely Out of First SpaceShipTwo Commercial Flight

 Sir Richard Branson and daughter, Holly, look through the window of a SpaceShipTwo shell. (Photo credit: Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic)
Sir Richard Branson and daughter, Holly, look through the window of a SpaceShipTwo shell. (Photo credit: Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic)

Editor’s Note: It’s official. Sir Richard has been reassuring the British media that Holly will not be the first person to give birth in space — a rather outlandish idea that some in the press corps over there seem strangely fixated on. Welcome to the world, twins! Now get ready for the 6G re-entry. Bizarre.

It would seem that Richard Branson’s daughter Holly will not be joining her famous father and brother Sam on the first SpaceShipTwo commercial flight, which is scheduled for the end of the year from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

“Freddie and I are delighted to share the happy news that we are expecting twins!” Holly Branson announced on Tuesday in a blog post on the Virgin Group’s website.

Passengers aboard SpaceShipTwo are expected to briefly experience up to six times the force of normal gravity during the suborbital flight.

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides has said the company plans to conduct a “handful” of additional SpaceShipTwo test flights at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California before moving operations to New Mexico later this year.

The Branson flight is set to kickoff commercial service of the vehicle, for which about 700 people have signed up. Tickets cost $250,000 each.

Space Conferences, Engine Claims and Silly Putty

SpaceShipTwo in powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo in powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Over the years, I’ve heard many speakers at various space conferences and events say all sorts of things that I felt…oh, comment on dit?…stretched the truth like Silly Putty. Yes, that’s a polite way to put it.

After a while, I’ve become quite numb to it all — the hype, promises, publicity stunts, optimistic schedules that get blown away like fallen leaves on a windy Mojave day. By this point, most of it just passes over me without meriting so much as a mention.

But, sometimes I hear something that stretches the rhetorical Silly Putty beyond the breaking point. I had just such an experience three weeks ago at the Space Tech Expo in Long Beach, Calif.

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SpaceShipTwo Back on the Ramp

mojave_tower_sunset_smBy Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

After a couple of months inside the hangar undergoing modifications, SpaceShipTwo is outside on the ramp today at the Mojave Air & Space Port in California.

Scaled Composites engineers are running the suborbital space plane through pressure tests on the cockpit, according to sources. The vehicle does not have an engine installed.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo last flew under power on Jan. 10, completing a 20-second burn of its hybrid nitrous oxide-rubber engine and reached an altitude of 71,000 feet. The ship flew again in an un-powered glide flight one week later before going into the hangar for changes.

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Suborbital Friday With XCOR, Virgin Galactic

jeff_greason
XCOR CEO Jeff Greason (Credit: XCOR)

Friday was a big day for finding out more about the two leading suborbital companies.

XCOR conducted a Q&A with CEO Jeff Greason using questions submitted via Facebook and Twitter. Read the transcript on XCOR’s blog and find out more about the status of the Lynx space plane, point-to-point travel, and the company’s plans for the future.

virgin_branson_pomerantz_hangoutMeanwhile, Virgin Galactic Vice President of Special Projects Will Pomerantz joined Richard Branson’s son, Sam, in a Google Hangout to answer questions from participants in the Google Science Fair.  Watch the YouTube video to watch them discuss why humans go to space and Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle.

Virgin Galactic NOT Going to Announce 700th Sign-up on Friday

SpaceShipTwo lights its engine as WhiteKnightTwo flies overhead. (Credit: Ken Brown)
SpaceShipTwo lights its engine as WhiteKnightTwo flies overhead. (Credit: Ken Brown)

UPDATE: Looks like I got this wrong. D’oh! Will Pomerantz just said the announcement is coming up in the next week or so. Last week, CEO George Whitesides said to expect a “fun” announcement this week. I figured it would come during the Google Hangout with the founder’s son, but I was wrong.

Get ready for some fun, VG style!

Richard Branson’s son Sam will co-host a Galactic Hangout on Friday, Feb. 28 during the Google Science Fair. He and Virgin Galactic Vice President Will Pomerantz will address the question, “Why go to space?” They will also announce the 700th and 701st customer to sign up for a suborbital flight aboard SpaceShipTwo. Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides has promised it will be a fun announcement.

The event will be webcast at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3SQ1Czse1l4 on Feb. 28 at 1 p.m. EST.

Sam Branson to Host Google Science Fair Hangout

SpaceShipTwo lights its engine as WhiteKnightTwo flies overhead. (Credit: Ken Brown)
SpaceShipTwo lights its engine as WhiteKnightTwo flies overhead. (Credit: Ken Brown)

Richard Branson’s son Sam will co-host a Galactic Hangout on Feb. 28 during the Google Science Fair. He and Virgin Galactic Vice President Will Pomerantz will address the question, “Why go to space?”

Branson and Pomerantz will be interviewed by Gavin Ovsák, a former Google Science Fair finalist and a frequent host for GSF Hangout On Air sessions last year.

Educators who want their classrooms to join the Hangout can sign up on the Connected Classrooms form at http://goo.gl/z9gHfV #VirtualFieldTrips

The event will be webcast at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3SQ1Czse1l4 on Feb. 28 at 1 p.m. EST.

Today Show to Broadcast Branson’s Trip to Space

branson_kissing_sstwo
NEW YORK, NY, November 8, 2013 (NBCUniversal PR) —
Announced this morning on NBC’s TODAY, NBCUniversal inked an exclusive multi-platform partnership with Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial spaceline, to televise the inaugural commercial space flight of SpaceShipTwo.

Next year, Sir Richard and his adult children, Holly and Sam, will be the first private passengers to travel into space on SpaceShipTwo from Virgin Galactic’s terminal at Spaceport America in New Mexico. NBC News’ award-winning Peacock Productions will chronicle the journey across a myriad of NBCUniversal brands and platforms including CNBC,MSNBC, NBCNews.com, Syfy, The Weather Channel and more, culminating in a primetime special airing on NBC the night before launch, and a three-hour live event on “TODAY,” hosted by Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie.

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