Exclusive Photos of SpaceShipTwo’s Flight

WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo take off at 7:11 a.m. PST from the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

My friend Ken Brown got some great photos of the flight today.

WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo fly right overhead. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

The spacecraft was dropped 49 minutes after takeoff from Mojave. It fired its engine seconds later.

SpaceShipTwo fires its hybrid engine. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)
The engine continued to fire for 60 seconds. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

The 60-second burn was the longest in the history of SpaceShipTwo.

SpaceShipTwo fires its engine. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

We missed the landing because we were too far out into the desert. But, Ken got this photo of WhiteKnightTwo just before touchdown.

WhiteKnightTwo on approach to Mojave. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

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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Virgin Galactic Set to Attempt Spaceflight on Thursday

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

Virgin Galactic announced today that it would attempt the fourth flight of SpaceShipTwo Unity as early as Thursday morning from the Mojave Air and Space Port. The launch window runs through Saturday, Dec. 15.

“We plan to burn the rocket motor for longer than we ever have in flight before, but not to its full duration,” the company said in a statement that indicated the vehicle could reach a “space altitude.”

A full duration burn of Unity’s hybrid rubber-nitrous oxide engine would take approximately 60 seconds. This week’s flight will likely include a pilot and co-pilot but no passengers.

During its most recent flight test on July 26, Unity fired its hybrid engine for 42 seconds and reached an altitude of 32.3 miles (170,800 ft/52 km). It was the longest engine burn and highest flight in the program’s 14-year history.

By space altitude, Richard Branson’s space company apparently means the 50-mile (264,000 ft/80.4 km) boundary set by the U.S. Air Force for awarding astronaut wings to X-15 pilots in the 1960’s.

The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), which is the world governing body for air sports, sets the boundary of space at 100 km (62.1 miles/328,084 ft) . FAI recently announced it was exploring whether to lower the boundary to 80 km.

The 4.5-month long gap in powered flights is the longest for Virgin Galactic’s second SpaceShipTwo. The previous three tests came at roughly 2-month intervals.

Sources in Mojave say engineers have been grappling with several issues since July. The most serious one is a crack that was discovered in one of SpaceShipTwo’s major structural components. It’s not clear how the problem was addressed.

Potentially Historic Flights Loom in Mojave

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

It looks as if things could get very busy here at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the coming weeks with a possible pair of historic milestone flights.

Sir Richard Branson has said he expects SpaceShipTwo Unity to make a flight into space before Christmas, which is just over two weeks away. Sources say a flight is highly likely barring technical or weather delays.

Parabolic Arc has also heard that Stratolaunch could attempt the historic first flight of its massive carrier aircraft before the new year.
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FAI Considers Lowering Boundary of Space

The second SpaceShipTwo is carried aloft by WhiteKnightTwo on its first captive carry flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Well, there’s some great news for Virgin Galactic as it prepares for an attempt to send SpaceShipTwo to space. The FĂ©dĂ©ration AĂ©ronautique Internationale (FAI), which maintains records for aviation and spaceflight, is considering lowering the boundary of space from 100 to 80 km (62.1 to 47.7 miles).

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo probably can’t reach the 100 km boundary, which is also known as the Karman line.

FAI issued the following statement last week:

The Karman line is the 100km altitude used by FAI and many other organisations to mark the “boundary” of space . In the last few years there have been many scientific and technical discussions around this demarcation line for the “edge of space” and variance around this as a boundary condition for recognition of “astronaut” status.

Recently published analyses present a compelling scientific case for reduction in this altitude from 100km to 80km. These analyses combine data/modelling from a number of differing perspectives (latitudinal variations during solar cycles, theoretical lift coefficients for different size/configuration satellites ranging from cubesats to the International Space Station, perigee/apogee elliptical analysis of actual satellite orbital lifetimes etc) to a level that has never been done before in relation to this issue. They also provide an accurate overview of some of the historical arguments and inadvertent misrepresentations of Karman’s actual analyses and conclusions from over half a century ago.

FAI has therefore been in contact with the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) to propose that an international workshop is held during 2019 to fully explore this issue with input and participation from the astrodynamics and astronautical community.

Such a seminar, to be held under joint FAI/IAF auspices, would enable discussion from a wide range of professionals with relevant expertise to analyse and discuss the issue and possible redefinition of the altitude used by international organisations including FAI to recognise human spaceflights.

If the findings lead to a redefinition of the boundary of space as it is in use by international organisations, FAI would review any performances made between today’s statement and the date of implementation of the revised definition in order to ensure that these performances already take into consideration the findings as they exist today.

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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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.

Richard Branson Pops into Mojave to Check on Progress of Spaceflight Quest

Mojave Air and Space Port on a rare cloudy day. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Some day, Richard Branson might fly to space, gaze out the window, and see stars with his naked eyes, unencumbered by the Earth’s atmosphere or the optics of a telescope.

For the moment, he has to settle for his own fame and a star encased in concrete along the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The British billionaire was in Los Angeles last month for the unveiling of his star on that famous boulevard. While he was in the neighborhood, he popped up to the Mojave Air and Space Port, where Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company are working to make his dream of spaceflight a reality.

Given his early October prediction that Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity would fly to space in “weeks, not months,” one might have expected him to be here to view a spaceflight he has been promising for the past 14 years.

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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.