SpaceShipTwo Reaches Lower Definition of Space

SpaceShipTwo lands after a successful flight test. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Mojave, California, USA, 13 Dec 2018 (Virgin Galactic PR):  History has been made and a long-anticipated dream realised in Mojave, CA, today as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, landed from her maiden spaceflight to cheers from Richard Branson and the teams from Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company.

Not only is this the first human spaceflight to be launched from American soil since the final Space Shuttle mission in 2011, but the very first time that a crewed vehicle built for commercial, passenger service, has reached space.

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Virgin Galactic Statement on Upcoming Flight Test

SpaceShipTwo Unity during third flight test. (Credit: MarsScientific.com & Trumbull Studios)

MOJAVE, Calif. (Virgin Galactic PR) — Our SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, is entering the next stage of testing. During this phase of the flight program we will be expanding the envelope for altitude, air speed, loads, and thermal heating. We also plan to burn the rocket motor for durations which will see our pilots and spaceship reach space for the first time. Although this could happen as soon as Thursday morning, the nature of flight test means that it may take us a little longer to get to that milestone. It has taken years of design and manufacturing work by The Spaceship Company to get to this exciting stage and has required testing of all the parts and subsystems that make up SpaceShipTwo.
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Branson Sets up Straw Man as Attempt to Reach Space Looms

Richard Branson speaks to the press at the Mojave Air and Space Port about the crash off SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

In promoting an upcoming flight test of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo that is intended to reach space, Richard Branson has set up a straw man as a critic that he will gleefully knock down should the vehicle lands safely back on Runway 12-30 in Mojave later this month.

“I obviously would love to prove our critics wrong, and I’m reasonably confident that before Christmas, we will do so,” he told CNN’s Rachel Crane in a video interview.

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Spaceport America: The Gift that Keeps on Taking (and Taking)

The Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space building. (Credit: Alex Heard)

Deborah Stevens, a public affairs specialist with the local office of the Bureau of Land Management, has written an op-ed for the Las Cruces Sun News titled, “Southern road to spaceport a gift to public in 2018,” in which she sing the praises of the newly paved 24-mile long southern road the shortens the drive from Las Cruces and Spaceport America.

For years before it was paved, the southern road was slow and hard on vehicles. It was generally passable by 4-wheel drive vehicles, but presented challenges to visitors in 2-wheel drive and low clearance vehicles, especially after rain storms. That is no longer true of the southern road, which starts from the Upham Exit 32 off Interstate 25 in Doña Ana County to the southeastern boundary of Sierra County.

For public land users, the southern road has now made it easier to access some of BLM’s outstanding public land resources, including the Point of Rocks and Yost Overlooks, the Jornado Del Muerto Trail, and the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail.

With the addition of some erosion control structures, like two concrete box culverts and rock gabions along the roadside, the public doesn’t have to worry about getting stuck in the mud should arroyos flood in the area.

Over time, the southern road will be the gift that keeps on giving, as people make their way between Doña Ana and Sierra counties on a reliable and well-paved road.

The benefits are undoubtedly real. But, let’s not kid ourselves: the road is less a gift to the people of Dona Ana and Sierra counties than an investment in infrastructure paid for by their own tax dollars.

The main reason the road was paved was due to the existence of Spaceport America, a project that has cost the people of the state and those two counties about $225 million (and counting) without much of the return on investment promised by Richard Branson and anchor tenant Virgin Galactic.

Driving up to Truth or Consequences and then doubling back to reach the spaceport, was seen as too long of a trip. So a dirt road was paved at a cost of $14 million to make the trip easier.

One can only wonder at what other pressing projects have not been attended to while New Mexico bent over backwards for Branson’s perpetually delayed plans to send well-heeled billionaires and millionaires on suborbital joy rides.

Branson Ramps Up SpaceShipTwo Hype, Again; Test Flight Coming Soon

Richard Branson and George Whitesides gave out at SpaceShipTwo after it came to a stop on Runway 12 after Unity’s first glide flight in December 2016. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Richard Branson is ramping up the hype again for his human spaceflight program.

CNN is here at the Mojave Air and Space Port today, doing live reports from Virgin Galactic’s FAITH facility, where the company builds and preps SpaceShipTwo and its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, for flights.

And Branson is predicting SpaceShipTwo will fly to some definition of space by Christmas. That means they will drop the vehicle and light the engine for roughly 1 minute for the first time in an effort to reach at least 50 miles (80.46 km/264,000 ft) in altitude.

We’ve all heard this before, of course. Branson was publicizing the hell out of SpaceShipTwo back in fall 2014, predicting he would be in space  on the first commercial flight within months. Then they would start flying more than 700 people who signed up. (CNN says the number is now down to about 600.)

Then SpaceShipTwo Enterprise crashed during a flight test on Oct. 31, 2014, killing co-pilot Mike Alsbury. It took Virgin Galactic about three years to get back to the same point in the flight test program with the second vehicle, Unity.

It was the second major setback for the program. In 2007 — the year Branson predicted commercial service would begin — three engineers were killed in a test stand explosion. Redesigning the nitrous oxide tank they were testing took years.

After more than a decade of delays and two fatal accidents, another space mogul might let the pilots fly the vehicle and hype the results afterward. But, that’s not the way Branson rolls. So, CNN is here today to preview the flight.

Branson is hyping an actual planned test this time. Barring any problems in the weeks ahead, we will see a flight before Dec. 21. At that point, everyone will take off for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, and the spaceport will become virtually a ghost town.

Virgin Galactic Chief Pilot David Mackay and test pilot Mark Stucky have flown the previous powered flights. I’m guessing they’ll be in the cockpit again this time for the program’s most challenging and dangerous test to date.

SpaceShipTwo Unity last flew four months ago. During its third powered flight on July 26, the vehicle reached 170,800 ft. (52 km/32.3 miles) and Mach 2.47 after firing its engine for 42 seconds.

Since the last flight test, engineers have been wrestling with several unidentified problems that were discovered on SpaceShipTwo.

Doug Shane & Jonathan Firth Depart Virgin Galactic, TSC

Doug Shane

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Richard Branson’s Mojave-based space companies have seen two high-level departures in recent months as they prepare to  launch SpaceShipTwo on a spaceflight for the first time.

Doug Shane has left his position as chairman of The Spaceship Company (TSC), which builds SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism vehicles, WhiteKnightTwo mother ships, and propulsion systems for Virgin Galactic.

Shane remains a member of the company’s board of advisors. A Virgin Galactic spokesman said the company has not replaced Shane as chairman.

Jonathan Firth, who served as executive vice president of spaceport and program development, has also left Virgin Galactic after 14 years with the company.  Firth’s Linkin page indicates he has left Virgin Galactic but does not say when he did so.

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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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Video: Branson Talks Virgin Galactic Again

Editor’s Note: Every time I hear Branson talk about Virgin Galactic, I’m always reminded of Lord Whorfin’s speech in Buckaroo Bonzai: Across the 8th Dimension.

Lord John Whorfin: Where are we going?
Red Lectroids: Planet Ten!
Lord John Whorfin: When?
Red Lectroids: Real soon!

Their subsequent attempt to break on through doesn’t go exactly according to plan.

“We’re not in the 8th dimension. We’re over New Jersey,” a Red Lectroid reports dryly after their vehicle crashes through the wall of Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems. (The company’s motto is, “The Future Begins Tomorrow.”)

Branson recently said that SpaceShipTwo Unity would be in space in weeks, not months, implying that a flight featuring a full-duration engine burn of about one minute was imminent.

He’s made similar predictions before without Virgin Galactic blasting a spaceship past the Karman line. Nicholas Schmidle asked him about it for a profile he did for The New Yorker of pilot Mark Stucky titled, “Virgin Galactic’s Rocket Man,”

Branson admitted to me, “It would be embarrassing if someone went back over the last thirteen years and wrote down all my quotes about when I thought we would be in space.” But he also defended his approach: “If you are an optimist and you talk ahead of yourself, then everybody around you has got to catch up and try to get there.”

Huh. So all this…um…stuff — for lack of a better word — he’s been saying for 14 years was to keep the program moving along? To inspire the employees? Did it work?

And how should we judge his latest schedule pronouncement? Is it an accurate prediction of things to come? Or an effort to motivate the troops to overcome whatever issues they might have discovered during the previous three powered flight tests of Unity?

Time will tell. It’s been three months since the last flight test at the end of July. And the fourth anniversary of the loss of SpaceShipOne Enterprise is coming up on Halloween. That anniversary is, emotionally speaking, like a bad case of acid reflux. Brings up a lot of sad memories and emotions.

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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Virgin Galactic Entering Next Phase of SpaceShipTwo Flight Tests

View of SpaceShipTwo Unity from the tail boom. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

SpaceNews has an update on Virgin Galactic’s progress in testing SpaceShipTwo Unity.

Speaking at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight here Oct. 10, George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said he expected at least one more powered flight test of the vehicle before the end of this year.

“We’re entering into the next phase of our test flight program,” he said. “The next phase of flight will entail longer burns and higher duration, and that’s exciting for the team.”

Not all of those flights, though, will involve flights that go higher and faster. “We’ll do a variety of different things as we expand the envelope and try to understand abort scenarios and other things,” he said. “We have a lot of work still to go, but we’re making good progress.”

You might recall that the previous test flight in July the suborbital vehicle fired its engine for 42 seconds and reached an altitude of 170,800 ft, which are both records for the program.

Branson Says SpaceShipTwo Will Reach Space Within Weeks

Richard Branson rolls out Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Unity in Mojave. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Richard Branson is back in the headlines again talking schedules for SpaceShipTwo.

“We should be in space within weeks, not months. And then we will be in space with myself in months and not years,” the Virgin founder and CEO told CNBC’s Nancy’s Hungerford at the Barclays Asia Forum in Singapore Tuesday.

You can read the rest of the interview — in which he repeats the same things he’s been saying for the last 14 years — here.

What I think this means is that another flight test is coming soon. On the last one back in July, they fired the engine for 42 seconds. I would expect the upcoming flight will entail a full engine burn of about 60 seconds. This is a deduction on my part; there’s just not a lot of places to go in terms of burn length.

A full burn would get SpaceShipTwo to some definition of space. The international beginning of space — known as the Karman line — is 100 km (62.1 miles). The U.S. Air Force (USAF) awarded astronaut wings to X-15 pilots who flew to at least 50 miles (80.4 km) during the 1960’s.

Virgin Galactic’s agreement with its ticket holders uses the USAF standard as the minimum altitude promised. Since there are no mile markers up there, the view will be similar but the amount of time in microgravity will be slightly less than if the vehicle gets to the Karman line.

Several additional test flights are expected before Branson boards the first official commercial flight at Spaceport America in New Mexico. At this point, I’m guessing that will happen some time in 2019.

Japan’s PD Aerospace Aims for Space Tourism Flights in 2023

A planned suborbital space plane. Credit: (PD AeroSpace Ltd. / Koike Terumasa Design and Aerospace)

An update on the Japanese start-up PD Aerospace, which has plans for a space tourism vehicle that would take off from the runway.

The Nagoya-based company plans space flights to an altitude of 110 kilometers by the spacecraft, capable of carrying six passengers and two pilots, at a price of 17 million yen ($153,000) per person.

“We would like to open a new space era (with the spacecraft),” said Shuji Ogawa, the 48-year-old president of PD AeroSpace.

Last summer, the company successfully carried out a combustion experiment of the spacecraft’s pulse detonation engine, which is switchable from an air-breathing mode to rocket mode.

According to the company plan, the spaceship will change its mode of combustion at an altitude of 15 km to ascend further, and passengers will be able to enjoy a near weightless experience for about five minutes while staring down at Earth.

Japan’s Space Walker Aims for Space Tourism Flights & Small Satellite Launches

Credit: Space Walker

TOKYO — A Japanese startup named is developing a new launch vehicle that will orbit small satellites and carry tourists on suborbital flights beginning in 2027.

Credit: Space Walker

Space Walker plans a series of suborbital flight tests with a prototype vehicle. The system will then be outfitted with a second stage capable of launching small satellites into orbit.

Credit: Space Walker

The final version of the Space Walker system would carry six passengers and two pilots beginning in 2027.

The program includes IHI Corporation and JAXA as partners.

The company was founded by Koichi Yonemoto, a professor at Kyushu Institute of Technology who formerly worked at Kawasaki Heavy Industries. Partners in the venture include IHI Corporation and the Japanese space agency JAXA.

Space Miles® to Launch Suborbital Spaceflight Competitions

Space Miles Press Release

Space Miles, through their sub-brand The Space Shuffle® are soon to launch continuous online competitions to win sub-orbital space flights.

The format of The Space Shuffle online competition will be to answer three questions and the winner will be the first correct entry chosen at random when the trigger point of 45,000 entries has been reached.

www.thespaceshuffle.com

Competitions will start when sub-orbital flights are generally available to the public. Tickets will be $10 but pre-registrants will get 20% discount on their first five entries.

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