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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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.

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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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.

NASA, UAE Space Agency Sign Historic Agreement for Cooperation in Human Spaceflight

BREMEN, Germany (NASA PR) — NASA and the UAE Space Agency (UAESA) signed an Implementing Arrangement (IA) Monday, Oct. 1, that outlines cooperation across a range of areas related to space exploration and human spaceflight. The document was signed by H.E. Dr. Ahmad Belhoul Al Falasi, Minister of State for Higher Education and Advanced Skills, and Chairman of the UAE Space Agency, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine during a ceremony at the 69th International Astronautical Congress, being held in Bremen, Germany Oct. 1-5.

The IA falls under the overarching Framework Agreement signed between the UAESA and NASA in June 2016, which established a framework for areas of cooperation in ground-based research; sub-orbital research; research and flight activities in low-Earth orbit (LEO); and human and robotic exploration in the vicinity of the moon, on the lunar surface, and beyond.

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Results of EXOS Aerospace SARGE Launch at Spaceport America

SARGE launch at Spaceport America. (Screenshot from Exos Aerospace webcast)

Spaceport America, NM and Greenville, TX (EXOS Aerospace/Spaceport America PR)Spaceport America, the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport and EXOS Aerospace Systems & Technologies, Inc., a leading developer of reusable space launch vehicles based in Greenville, Texas, announce a successful test launch of their newest vehicle, SARGE.

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GPS Glitch Limited Altitude of Exos SARGE Rocket

SARGE launch at Spaceport America. (Screenshot from Exos Aerospace webcast)

Space News reports that Exos Aerospace’s SARGE launch from Spaceport America last month failed to reach its intended altitude due to a glitch in its GPS system.

In a mission report provided by the company a week and a half after the launch, Exos said that a GPS receiver on the rocket stopped providing data during the rocket’s ascent. That triggered an automatic shutdown of the rocket’s engine 38 seconds after liftoff, versus a planned duration of 62 to 65 seconds, said John Quinn, chief operating officer of Exos, Sept. 5.

As a result of the early engine shutdown, the rocket reached a peak altitude of 28 kilometers, rather than the planned 80 kilometers. Quinn said an extrapolation of the rocket’s performance during that powered phase indicated the rocket might have been able to reach nearly 90 kilometers had the engine fired for the full duration.

The cause of the GPS unit malfunction in the rocket is still being studied. The unit started providing data again later in the flight, and an inspection turned up no obvious damage to the unit, cabling or antennas. There were separate dropouts of telemetry from the rocket during the flight, according to the mission report.

China’s OneSpace Launches Suborbital Booster

OneSpace launched the OS-X1 suborbital rocket on Friday from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in another step toward orbital flights for the Chinese commercial launch company, according to media reports.

Gbtimes reports the solid-fuel Chongqing Liangjiang Star booster reached an altitude of about 35 kilometer during a 3m 20s flight. The first flight of the suborbital rocket was conducted in May.

The flight was captured from space by the Jilin-1, which was passing overhead at the time.

The suborbital flights are testing technology for the company’s larger OS-XM orbital booster. The company is planning a flight test of that rocket by the end of the year.

The flight came two days after Chinese rival iSpace launched its Hyperbola-1Z suborbital rocket from Jiuquan. iSpace also has plans for an orbital launch vehicle and a space plane.

A third commercial launch firm, Landspace,  plans to launch the orbital Zhuque-1 rocket next month.

Chinese Startup iSpace Launches Suborbital Rocket

Hyperbolic XQS-1X rocket (Credit: iSpace)

Chinese commercial launch provider iSpace successfully launched its Hyperbola-1Z suborbital booster with three payloads aboard from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on Wednesday at 1 p.m. local time (0500 UTC), according to media reports.

The 9-meter (29.5-foot) tall, single stage solid-fuel rocket reached an altitude of 175 km (108 miles) and deployed the three suborbital payloads. One of the payloads parachuted back to Earth, media reports say.

In April, the company launched the suborbital Hyperbola-1S rocket to an altitude of 40 km (29.85 miles).

iSpace completed a series A round of fundraising in July that brought the total amount raised to 600 million yuan ($90 million) in 2018. The round was led by Matrix Partners China.

The company has plans to develop an orbital satellite launcher as well as a space plane.

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.

Review: Rocket Billionaires Elon Musk & Jeff Bezos Battle for Control of Space

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Rocket Billionaires: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the New Space Race
by Tim Fernholz
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018
304 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-328-66223-1
US$28

In 2004, a small vehicle named SpaceShipOne built by Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites and funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen flew three suborbital flights, becoming the first privately-built crewed craft to exit the Earth’s atmosphere. For their efforts, Rutan and Allen won the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

Rutan quickly teamed with another billionaire, Richard Branson, to build a successor vehicle named SpaceShipTwo for Virgin Galactic that would carry two pilots and six passengers on commercial suborbital flights as early as 2007. It didn’t quite work out as planned; 14 years later, SpaceShipTwo hasn’t flown anyone to space.

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