Richard Branson Wants to Fly on SpaceShipTwo on Anniversary of Apollo 11 Moon Landing

Richard Branson with the pilots of SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson says he wants to fly to space aboard SpaceShipTwo as America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, Agence France Presse (AFP) reports.

“My wish is to go up on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, that’s what we’re working on,” the head of the Virgin group said on the sidelines of an event to honor Virgin Galactic at the Air and Space Museum in Washington.

Whether a SpaceShipTwo flight on the anniversary of the moon landing will be seen as a fitting tribute to America’s greatest achievement in space or merely a giant PR distraction is uncertain.

Whether they will be able to make that date is equally unclear. SpaceShipTwo Unity is still undergoing flight tests at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. (Branson told AFP the next flight is set for Feb. 20, weather permitting.) And practically all of his previous predictions for the start of commercial flights have been proven wrong over the past 14.5 years.

Branson plans to be on Virgin Galactic’s first commercial flight, which will take place from Spaceport America in New Mexico. His son, Sam, and other passengers are set to be aboard the flights. Perhaps he will take Apollo 11 moon walker Buzz Aldrin, who just turned 89, along with him.

Branson told AFP that Virgin Galactic costs $35 million per month or $420 million per year to operate. He previously estimated he has spent $1 billion to $1.3 billion on the SpaceShipTwo program since it was announced in 2004.

Virgin recently laid off about 40 employees from Virgin Galactic and its sister company, The Spaceship Company.

Virgin Galactic, TSC Donate SpaceShipTwo Rocket Motor to Smithsonian

SpaceShipTwo motor donated to the National Air & Space Museum. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

WASHINGTON, 7 Feb 2019 (Virgin Galactic PR) — Richard Branson joined Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company (TSC) staff and guests today at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, to announce that the hybrid rocket motor which powered SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, to space for the first time on December 13th last year, has been donated to the museum. The rocket motor was unveiled during the ceremony and will be exhibited in the museum’s planned, new commercial space flight gallery to be called ‘Future of Spaceflight.’

(more…)

Layoffs at Virgin Galactic & The Spaceship Company

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

NMPolitics.net is reporting that there were about 40 layoffs from Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company earlier this month as they prepare to begin commercial flights from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

A Virgin Galactic spokesman confirmed the layoffs in a statement via email.

Recently we separated a small number of our team in order to position our organization for the drive to commercial operations following our successful recent spaceflight, and make room for new skill sets that we need to bring in over the course of this year.  In total we separated around 40 people, less than 5% of our total workforce across Virgin Galactic and TSC. We are offering support to those impacted and sincerely thank them for their contributions, and wish them well for the future.

The news comes on the heels of a decision by SpaceX to lay off about 10 percent of its roughly 6,000 employees. Stratolaunch, which like Virgin Galactic is based in Mojave, announced last week that it was laying off about 50 employees as it down scaled plans for boosters to air launch from its massive aircraft.

(more…)

Saudi Astronaut Appointed to Head Kingdom’s New Space Agency

Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (Credit: NASA)

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has appointed his nation’s first – and thus far, only – astronaut to head up a newly created national space agency.

Prince Sultan bin Salman, who flew into orbit aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1985, was appointed to the position. Salam, 62, is one of the king’s second son.

As a payload specialist aboard the flight, Salam helped to deploy the ARABSAT-1B satellite from the shuttle’s cargo bay for the Arab Satellite Communications Organization (ARABSAT). His flight marked the first time an Arab, a Muslim and a member of a royal family traveled to space.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

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.
(more…)

Mojave Receives $1 Million for Taxiway B Extension

Taxiway B at the Mojave Air and Space Port will be extended into the field on the left of the photo. (Credit: Google Maps)

The Mojave Air and Space Port’s “taxiway of dreams” — Taxiway B — will be extended with the help of a $1.05 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“These Airport Improvement Grants are investments in our country’s critical infrastructure,” said DOT Secretary Elaine Chao in a press release. “This grant is a down payment to ensure Mojave remains an economic engine as demand grows.”

The taxiway is so nicknamed because it was built without having a specific tenant signed up. Taxiway B serves the FAITH hangar, which is home to Virgin Galactic, The Spaceship Company and their two vehicles, SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo.

A sister company, Virgin Orbit, plans to operate its Boeing 747 out of Mojave. The aircraft, which is named Cosmic Girl, will air launch satellites over the Pacific Ocean with the LauncherOne booster.

The funding to Mojave is part of $770.8 million in airport infrastructure grants announced on Friday. It is the third allotment of a total of $3.18 billion allocated under the DOT’s Airport Improvement Program.

Branson Honored for Space Efforts at Apollo Celebration Awards Ceremony

Richard Branson (l) and George Whitesides (r) walk with SpaceShipTwo pilots David Mackay and Mark Stucky after a successful glide flight. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson was one of three people honored for contributions to further space exploration during the Apollo Celebration Gala held at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Saturday.

(more…)

Saudi Arabia’s Investment in Virgin Includes Hyperloop

Saudi Arabia’s decision to invest $1 billion with an option for $480 million more into the Virgin Group involves not only its three space companies — Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit and The Spaceship Company — but also Virgin Hyperloop One. Vision 2030 is Saudi Arabia’s plan to modernize and diversify its economy away from oil. The kingdom plans to connect its cities and those in adjoining countries via a network of hyperloops.

Mojave Gets a Royal Visit

Mojave control tower at sunset. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Mojave is a quiet little town that people don’t visit so much as stop at just long enough for gas, food or a bathroom break. It seems like the only folks who stay overnight have business at the spaceport or are long-haul truckers who are not here for the town’s non-existent nightlife.

So, the arrival of Richard Branson’s private jet — the one with the Virgin Galactic eye on the tail — on Saturday afternoon was quite the surprise. Normally he’s here to watch a test flight of SpaceShipTwo, but there was no sign that one would take place over the long Easter weekend.

The following day, the jet was still parked outside Virgin’s FAITH facility, but it was surrounded by a dozen or more SUVs right there on the ramp. Something was going on over there, but it was hard to know what.

On Monday, we got an answer. The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, was here to see his nation’s latest investment. Last fall, Saudi Arabia signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to invest $1 billion with an option for $480 million more in Branson’s three space companies — Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit and The Spaceship Company.

Photographs of the visit (here and here) show that Saudi Arabia’s symbols now adorn Virgin’s vehicles. The kingdom’s official seal can be seen on SpaceShipTwo’s nose and a model of a hyperloop vehicle for Virgin Hyperloop One. The logo of Vision 2030 — Saudi Arabia’s ambitious effort to diversify its economy away from oil — can be seen on the side of the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.

There was also the following information from a Saudi news report:

And for the first time, Virgin Galactic unveiled new and unique aircraft fuel compartments, in addition to a presentation on spacecraft that will enter commercial services.

The officials reviewed the areas of existing investment partnership, ways of developing them especially in space services, opportunities for deepening cooperation in modern technologies through research, manufacturing, and training Saudi youths, and transforming the Kingdom from a consumer to a producer of technology.

I’m sure we’ll get more information from Virgin soon.

Greetings From Mojave: Stratolaunch in the Wild, TSC Rebrands

Stratolaunch on the runway. (Credit: Scaled Composites)

Greetings from Ice Station Mojave!

We’re in the midst of what they call a polar vortex, so this week has been particularly cold. Today I believe it reached a high of only 43 F (6 C) and tonight we’re looking at a low of 23 F (-5 C) overnight. The winds were blowing off the mountains at 33 mph (53 kph) and gusting this morning and continued throughout the day.

Up until a couple of weeks ago, the winter had been rather dry and mild, especially compared with the cold, wet one we had last year. But, Old Man Winter has returned with an icy fury.

Despite the weather, Ken Brown and I ventured over to the spaceport to see the Stratolaunch aircraft parked outside its hangar with a fuel truck parked next to it. It’s quite a jaw-dropping sight to see outside in the wild, positively Spruce Goosian in its size and ambition (and, hopefully not, in its flight history). It ain’t nicknamed Birdzilla for nothing.

There are NOTAMS (Notice to Airmen) posted for Saturday and Sunday that indicate the tower will be open (unusual for the weekend) and Runway 12/30 is closed (ditto). So, I’m expecting Stratolaunch will be out on the runway doing some additional taxi tests. I’m guessing it’s too early for a flight by the Paul Allen-funded aircraft.

Driving past Virgin Galactic’s FAITH hangar on the way back from viewing Stratoluanch, I noticed a Spaceship Company logo on the building that I had not seen before.

Word is TSC is going thru a re-branding to separate it from Virgin Galactic. Richard Branson has been talking up supersonic passenger planes that he wants to build.

The Virgin Group has a memorandum of understanding with the government of Saudi Arabia for $1 billion investment in The Spaceship Company, Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit.

So, I imagine we’ll soon be seeing some new public relations materials from Virgin in the form of a video, press release, and so on announcing the re-branding.

A Look Back at the Space Year That Was

Total solar eclipse photographed from NASA Armstrong’s Gulfstream III. (Credit: (NASA/Carla Thomas)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

I realize it’s a bit late, but here’s a look back at the major developments in space in 2017.

I know that I’m probably forgetting something, or several somethings or someones. Fortunately, I have eagle-eyed readers who really seem to enjoy telling me just how much I’ve screwed up. Some of them a little too much….

So, have at it!  Do your worst, eagle-eyed readers!

(more…)

Branson’s Saudi Deals Include Mega City, Spaceflights from Riyadi

Credit: CIC Saudi Arabia

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Saudi Arabia’s non-binding agreement to invest $1 billion in Richard Branson’s three space companies is part of a broader set of ventures that includes Branson’s Virgin Group investing in a new mega city on the Red Sea and suborbital space tourism flights from the Saudi capital.

“Branson has become the first international investor to commit to involvement in the Red Sea Project and nearby Al Ola/Madain Saleh, another prime site for the development of tourism, both domestic and international,” the Saudi government proudly announced on Oct. 1, more than three weeks before the space deal was unveiled.

(more…)