2020: Four Spaceships & the End of America’s Cosmic Groundhog Day

Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable, suborbital rocket. (Credits: Blue Origin)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The clock struck midnight on Jan. 1 amid raucous celebrations around the world. The arrival of a new year and decade merely confirmed what had been clear for months: 2019 was not the breakthrough year for getting humans off the planet.

Neither Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin followed through on long-standing promises to fly paying passengers on suborbital joyrides. An era of commercial space tourism that seemed so close that October day in 2004 when Brian Binnie guided SpaceShipOne to a landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port quietly slipped into yet another year.

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Watch Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo Land at Mojave

WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve returned to Mojave on Friday after a months-long stay at Spaceport America in New Mexico. The pilots did about a half dozen flights over the runway, some just above it and others touch-and-goes. This was the final approach and landing.

Virgin Galactic hasn’t made any announcement about its return. (Odd, because they tend to announce everything.) Officials have said in the past that WhiteKnightTwo would return to Mojave to bring SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity to New Mexico to complete its flight tests and then begin commercial flights.

Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo Returns to Mojave

WhiteKnightTwo (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

After spending months at Spaceport America in New Mexico, Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo carrier ship VMS Eve flew back to the Mojave Air and Space Port in California on Friday.

WhiteKnightTwo (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

The pilots made about a half dozen low passes over runway 12-30. Several were just above the runway, while others were touch-and-goes on which they briefly landed before soaring again into the desert sky.

WhiteKnightTwo (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Virgin Galactic officials have said that WhiteKnightTwo would return to Mojave to transport SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity to the Spaceport America to complete its flight test program.

WhiteKnightTwo (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Virgin Galactic is hoping to fly it founder, Richard Branson, on the first commercial SpaceShipTwo suborbital flight in time for his 70th birthday on July 18.

The company has said it has a backlog of 603 ticket holders who have paid either $200,000 or $250,000 apiece. Thousands of other potential space tourists have expressed interest in signing up once Virgin Galactic starts selling tickets again, officials said. The company plans to take reservations at an even higher price once commercial service begins.

Spaceport America Seeking Additional $92.6 Million for Improvements

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

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor/Publisher

It’s budget season again in Sante Fe. As usual, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) is seeking money for additional upgrades to Spaceport America.

The Albuquerque Journal has a story outlining a series of requests totaling nearly $93 million. I have helpfully summarized the information in the table below.

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2019: A Busy Year in Suborbital Flight

Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable, suborbital rocket. (Credits: Blue Origin)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Last year was a busy one for suborbital flights as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic conducted a combined four flights of their crewed suborbital vehicles. Despite hopes to the contrary, neither company flew paying tourists on their spaceships.

There were also 26 sounding rocket launches that carried scientific experiments and technology payloads above the atmosphere. The year saw:

  • Japanese startup Interstellar Technologies conduct a successful launch of its Momo commercial sounding rocket;
  • Texas-based Exos Aerospace continue to struggle with its reusable SARGE booster; and,
  • the first suborbital launch ever achieved by college students.
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SpinLaunch Receives Additional Investment of $35 Million, Bringing Total Investment to $80 Million

Illustration depicting SpinLaunch orbital vehicle inside the electric kinetic launcher (Credit: SpinLaunch)

LONG BEACH, Calif. (SpinLaunch PR)–Jonathan Yaney, Founder and CEO of SpinLaunch, Inc.,has announced that the company has received an additional investment of $35 million for continued development of the world’s first kinetic launch system, designed to provide the lowest-cost, environmentally responsible orbital launch system to serve the rapidly growing small satellite industry.

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Collaboratory Formed to Promote New Mexico’s Spaceport America During Closed Door Meeting

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

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Officials from New Mexico, the federal government and Virgin Galactic met last week behind closed doors for the state’s first Space Valley Summit to form a “collaboratory” to promote Spaceport America and the state’s aerospace economy.

The one group not invited: taxpayers who have forked over about $250 million to build the spaceport where Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant. As the Las Cruces Sun News dryly noted

Minutes after [Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham] exhorted the summit to “make sure every New Mexican … knows exactly what is happening here,” all reporters were asked to leave. 

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ABL Completes E2 Rocket Engine Test Campaign

UPHAM, NM (Spaceport America PR) – ABL Space Systems, a company founded by former SpaceX engineers, recently completed a successful test campaign of its E2 rocket engine at Spaceport America.

“Spaceport America provided the perfect location and support staff for us to test the E2 rocket engine,” explained ABL CFO Dan Piemont. “Our team did a great job rapidly activating our deployable test site, and we are happy with how E2 performed. This campaign was an important step toward bringing the RS1 launch vehicle to market.”

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UP Aerospace Announces Successful Launch of Space Loft-14 Rocket from Spaceport America

The Affordable Vehicle Avionics payload fits into the avionics bay of UP Aerospace’s SpaceLoft vehicle. It provides the intelligence to command the guidance and control system for the rocket. (Credits: U.S. Army)

Spaceport America, NM, November 27th, 2019 (Spaceport America PR) – Spaceport America, the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport located in southern New Mexico and UP Aerospace, a space launch and flight test service provider based in Highlands Ranch, Colorado with facilities at Spaceport America, announced the successful launch of UP Aerospace’s Space Loft 14 (SL-14) rocket from the Spaceport America Vertical Launch Area on Friday, November 22.

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UP Aerospace Launch Tests New Technologies

UP Aerospace’s SpaceLoft rocket. (Credits: NASA)

SPACEPORT AMERICA, NM (NASA PR) — On Nov. 22 UP Aerospace launched its SpaceLoft rocket on a flight funded by the company’s NASA Tipping Point award. The Affordable Vehicle Avionics (AVA) project from NASA’s Ames Research Center was one of several payloads onboard.

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In Orbit and On Budget: Launching Small Payloads Faster and Cheaper

The Affordable Vehicle Avionics payload fits into the avionics bay of UP Aerospace’s SpaceLoft vehicle. It provides the intelligence to command the guidance and control system for the rocket. (Credits: U.S. Army)

SPACEPORT AMERICA, NM (NASA PR) — What does a satellite the size of a shoebox, a human skin tissue sample and a 5G network testing device have in common? They are all examples of payloads NASA and other organizations would like to launch into orbit at low cost—to gather data for scientific research; test new technologies; and transmit and receive data for weather, broadcast, military and emergency communications. But doing so on any sort of accelerated schedule can be a challenge.

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NASA Sponsored Experiment on Board Failed SARGE Launch

A cloud of dirt rises after the impact of the SARGE booster. (Credit Exos Aerospace webcast)


UPHAM, NM (NASA PR) — On Oct. 26, Exos Aerospace launched its SARGE suborbital reusable launch vehicle from Spaceport America, New Mexico, with a NASA Flight Opportunities–supported payload onboard: the University of Central Florida’s Suborbital Particle Aggregation and Collision Experiment-2 (SPACE-2). The flight was aborted 48 seconds after launch due to what the company reported to be a structural failure. 

Exos is in the process of evaluating video and telemetry data from the flight and intends to implement lessons learned from its first three SARGE launches. The company stated in a press release its plans to work closely with the Federal Aviation Administration on a return-to-flight protocol and planned vehicle upgrades in advance of flying again by mid-2020.

My Podcast Appearance on Tipping Point New Mexico

I recently talked with Paul Gessing who runs the Tipping Point New Mexico podcast. We talked about my article, “Spaceport America and Virgin Galactic: The Numbers Never Added Up,” which looked at the promises made to justifying spending $225 million on a custom-built spaceport for Richard Branson’s suborbital space tourism company. We also discussed Virgin Galactic’s recent move to go public.

Enjoy!

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Goes Public With Extravagant Promises to Keep

Richard Branson wears the SpaceShipTwo flight suit. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

After 15 years of making extravagant but unkept promises to fly more than 600 “future astronauts” to space, Richard Branson must now please an entirely new group of people who are usually much shorter on patience: shareholders.

Following the completion last week of a merger with Social Capital Hedosophia (SCH), the British billionaire’s Virgin Galactic suborbital “space line” will begin trading under its own name on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on Monday.

Going public now is an unusual move for a space tourism company that hasn’t flown a singlet tourist to space since Branson announced the SpaceShipTwo program in 2004. Some might see it has putting the cart before the horse.

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Exos SARGE Launch Ends With Crash

SARGE rocket takes off (Credit Exos Aerosopace webcast)

The fourth launch of a suborbital SARGE rocket by Exos Aerospace ended with a crash of the booster near its launch pad after a brief flight at Spaceport America on Saturday.

A cloud of dirt rises after the impact of the SARGE booster. (Credit Exos Aerospace webcast)

The booster appeared to wobble as it gained altitude after lift off. Data displayed on the Exos website indicated that the rocket reached an altitude of 41,464 ft (12,638 m) and a velocity of 1,264 mph (2,034 k/h).

SARGE’s main stage crashed without its parachute deploying after a flight of less than 3.5 minutes. The nose cone had earlier separated and descended separately.

Exos cut off the webcast shortly afterward.