Richard Branson Gets His Astronaut Wings, Aims to Eliminate Asterisk* Next Time

Unity 22 crew: Michael Masucci, Colin Bennett, Richard Branson, Sirisha Bandla, David Mackay and Beth Moses at the 37th Space Symposium. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
  • Billionaire aims to go higher and faster next time
  • Virgin Galactic still can’t get SpaceShipTwo all the way up (to Karman line)
  • FAA throws in the towel on deciding who is and who isn’t an astronaut

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Earlier this month, Richard Branson and two Virgin Galactic employees received commercial astronaut wings from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity flight test they took part in last July. The trio was the last group to receive the wings — FAA ended the program last year — and the honors came with a pretty big asterisk.

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Stratolaunch’s Roc Retracts & Extends Landing Gear During Fourth Flight Test

Roc aircraft in flight (Credit: Stratolaunch)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

MOJAVE, Calif. — Stratolaunch’s Roc — the world’s largest airplane by wing span at 385 ft (117.3 m) — flew for the fourth time on Thursday. In a sign of just how complicated the massive air-launch platform is to fly, one of the main objectives of this flight test was to retract and lower the plane’s landing gear at altitude for the first time ever.

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Stratolaunch Flight 4 Objective Today: Raise & Lower Landing Gear for First Time

Video Caption: Stratolaunch Lead Systems Engineer Stu Yun discusses preparation for the carrier aircraft’s fourth flight test, in which the team will retract and extend all of the aircraft landing gear for the first time.

Editor’s Note: The video spotlights some of the tradeoffs with advanced flying machines built by Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites. They are capable of very innovative designs that push the outside of the envelope on what can be done with airplanes and spacecraft. The tradeoff is that the vehicles can be quite complex and not the easiest things to operate or maintain. That it’s taking until the fourth flight to fully retract and extend all the landing gear is ample proof.

Mojave Air & Space Port Adds Rutan Brothers to its Name

Sir Richard Branson and Burt Rutan pose for a photo in front of the SpaceShip2 resting under the Mothership WhiteKnight2 inside a hangar in Mojave, Calif. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

MOJAVE, Calif. — The Mojave Air and Space Port has renamed itself to honor aviation and space pioneers Burt and Dick Rutan. The facility in California’s High Desert is now known as the Mojave Air and Space Port at Rutan Field.

“Whereas, Burt Rutan and Dick Rutan have made significant contributions in experimental aviation design, fabrication, and flight test at Mojave Air and Space Port, with their combined contributions resulting in first flights of over sixty unique experimental aircraft, including one twenty-year period with an average of a first flight of a new manned research type every eight and a half months,” the Board of Directors said in a resolution passed last month.

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Kaboom! ABL Space Destroys Second Stage in Test at Mojave

ABL Space Systems lost a second stage during a test in Mojave on Jan. 19, 2022. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

MOJAVE, Calif. — A loud boom echoed across California’s Mojave Desert on Wednesday afternoon. I would normally pay little attention to it given how common such occurrences are in Mojave. But, this one was different: instead of nearly daily boom-boom of jet fighters from nearby Edwards Air Force Base going supersonic, this one was a single large BOOM!

And oh, there was a giant cloud of black smoke rising from the rocket test area at the Mojave Air and Space Port. Someone’s engine test had clearly gone awry.

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NASA Armstrong Accomplished Numerous Milestones in 2021

Joby eVOL acoustic test (Credit: NASA)

EDWARDS, Calif. (NASA PR) — This year marks 75 years of flight research at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California and 2021 adds to those achievements. 2021 continued to be challenging while working in a mostly virtual environment, but progress was surely made.

NASA’s next supersonic X-plane, the X-59, is taking shape for upcoming flights; NASA’s first all-electric X-plane, the X-57, completed ground testing to prepare for flights; several Earth science missions were completed around the globe; and many other goals were met to prepare NASA Armstrong for a successful 2022 and beyond.

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Class Action Lawsuit Filed Against Virgin Galactic Alleging Securities Fraud

Michael Colglazier (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

A class action lawsuit was filed in New York on Dec. 7 alleging securities fraud by Virgin Galactic, which went public on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in October 2019 after merging with Chamath Palihapitiya’s Social Capital Hedosophia (SCH).

Named in the lawsuit are Virgin Galactic Holdings, CEO Michael Colglazier, former CEO George Whitesides, former current chief financial officer Doug Ahrens, and former chief financial officer Jon Compagna.

The lawsuit was filed amid years-long delays in the start of commercial human suborbital flights that have caused a sharp decline in the value of the stock. Virgin Galactic began trading on the New York Stock Exchange at an opening price of $12.34 on Oct. 28, 2019. The stock is now trading at $14.46 having previously soared to a high of $62.80.

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FAA Decides Bezos, Branson and Shatner Are Astronauts After All

  • Everyone who exceeds 50 miles by Dec. 31 will receive commercial astronaut wing even if they were just passengers
  • Nobody after that will even if they pilot a ship
  • Agency reverses earlier decision to award wings only to those essential to flight operations/success
  • FAA says this is what was intended all along

WASHINGTON (FAA PR) – With the advent of the commercial space tourism era, starting in 2022, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will now recognize individuals who reach space on its website instead of issuing Commercial Space Astronaut Wings. Any individual who is on an FAA-licensed or permitted launch and reaches 50 statute miles above the surface of the Earth will be listed on the site. 

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Report: Branson’s Flight into Space Experienced Serious Anomaly; Company Fired Flight Test Director

Richard Branson and other passengers float around in weightlessness. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

By all appearances, Richard Branson’s 17-years-in-the-making flight to the edge of space went exactly as planned on July 11. Or at least that was the impression left by Virgin Galactic’s webcast of SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity’s flight test from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

But, for the second time in four suborbital flights, VSS Unity experienced a serious anomaly. The ship with its hybrid engine firing wasn’t rising steeply enough as it soared toward space, Nicholas Schmidle reports in The New Yorker:

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“Test God” Out as Virgin Galactic’s Director of Flight Test

Well, one day you’re a “God,” the next day you’re on the unemployment line.

Such was fate of Mark Stucky, who was Virgin Galactic’s lead pilot and director of flight test. On Tuesday, he announced on his Linkedin page that he had left the position. When asked why, he replied,

“Departing a company not on my own timeline was a first for me.”

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Breaking Down Virgin Galactic’s Latest Flight Test

Take me out to the black,
Tell them I ain’t comin’ back.
Burn the land and boil the sea,
You can’t take the sky from me….

— “The Ballad of Serenity,” Sonny Rhodes

“After so many years and so much hard work, New Mexico has finally reached the stars.”

— New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

By now, you’ve probably read the rhetoric flourishes in Virgin Galactic’s press release about the company’s first suborbital flight test in more than two years that was conducted on Saturday. Suffice to say, if the stars were located at the altitude that SpaceShipTwo actually reached (55.45 miles/89.2 km), they would take the sky away at the same time they burned the land and boiled the seas. Being suborbital, VSS Unity wouldn’t have helped anyone escape the inferno.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen. So, let’s just put doomsday out of our minds. It’s time to break down what the flight test accomplished, what comes next, and why 27 months passed between powered flights. And what about Jeff Bezos?

Ready? Let’s go!

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IT’S ALIVE! Stratolaunch’s Roc Aircraft Flies for First Time in 2 Years

Stratolaunch overhead (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Flight signals revival of giant airplane, which will focus on launching hypersonic test vehicles.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

For the first time in 2 years 16 days, Stratolaunch’s massive Roc aircraft roared down the runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California and soared into in clear blue sky on only its second ever flight test.

Roc took off at 7:31 a.m. PDT time, trailing a giant cloud of dust stirred up by its six jet engines and giant 385-ft long wings that hung out over the desert scrub brush. The aircraft flew over the Mojave Desert for more than three hours as a crowd that had gathered for takeoff watched.

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Stratolaunch Took to Air Two Years Ago

Stratolaunch takes off. (Credit: Stratolaunch)

Two years ago today, on April 13, 2019, Stratolaunch’s enormous dual fuselage aircraft with a 385-ft wingspan took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port trailing a cloud of dust. It flew over the Mojave Desert for 2 hours 29 minutes before landing back on runway 12-30.

The plane was the dream child of Scaled Composites’ founder Burt Rutan and funded by the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen. It was designed to air launch satellites using a medium-size rocket.

Allen didn’t live to see the first, and thus far, only flight test of the aircraft. He passed away the previous October from non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Stratolaunch flies (Credit: Stratolaunch)

His sister, Jody, was the executor of Allen’s estimated $20 billion estate. She decided to sell the company. The new owners are now preparing to use the aircraft to launch hypersonic test vehicles.

The giant aircraft was out on Runway 12-30 for several days last week. It was likely conducting some taxi tests. It is not clear when it will take to the skies again.

Brian Binnie to Release Inside Account of SpaceShipOne Program

Credit: Brian Binnie

Test pilot Brian Binnie’s long-planned insider account of the SpaceShipOne program seems to be finally coming together.

The book, titled “The Magic and Menace of SpaceShipOne,” recounts how Burt Rutan and a small team at Scaled Composites won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004.

SpaceShipOne won the prize for being the first privately-built crewed spaceship to fly to space twice within two weeks.

Binnie was the pilot for the second of two prize-winning flights on Oct. 4, 2004. Mike Melvill flew the first prize flight five days earlier.

For more information about the book, visit https://brianbinnie.net/.

The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be: The Triumph and Failure of the Ansari X Prize

WhiteKnight with SpaceShipOne on the taxiway prior to the first commercial spaceflight. The authori is at right holding up the video camera. (Credit: John Criswick)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Sixteen years ago today, I awoke very early and joined about 25,000 people at a newly-designated spaceport in the Mojave Desert to watch history in the making.

On that bright sunny June 21, Mike Melvill became the first person to fly to space on a privately-built vehicle by piloting SpaceShipOne to just above the Karman line at 100 km.

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