— TheSpaceshipCompany (@TheSpaceshipCo) November 14, 2018
by Douglas Messier
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.
by Douglas Messier
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.
by Douglas Messier
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
by Douglas Messier
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!
by Douglas Messier
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.
The nonbinding memorandum of understanding involving $1 billion in investment from Saudi Arabia is Richard Branson’s latest success in obtaining financial support from governments for his Virgin Group’s space companies.
The table below shows funding invested directly into the group’s space ventures and indirectly for infrastructure.
|VIRGIN GROUP SPACE COMPANIES — DIRECT & INDIRECT GOVERNMENT INVESTMENT|
|2006||New Mexico||~$225||Custom built spaceport named Spaceport America constructed on 18,000 acres of land — Virgin Galactic signed 20 year lease to serve as anchor tenant|
|2009||Abu Dhabi||$280||Government-owned sovereign wealth fund Aabar Investments obtained 31.6 percent share of Virgin Galactic — plans for a spaceport where SpaceShipTwo would fly in Dubai — future commitment of $100 million more when Virgin Galactic developed viable plan for small-satellite booster (LauncherOne)|
|2011||Abu Dhabi||$110||Aabar Investments increased share of Virgin Galactic to 37.6 percent|
|2017||Saudi Arabia||$1,000||Under non-binding MOU, government-run Public Investment Fund (PIC) would obtain undisclosed share of three Virgin Group space companies: Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit and The Spaceship Company — Virgin Group to maintain majority ownership|
|Future||Saudi Arabia||$480||PIC has an option to invest nearly a half-billion more in Virgin Group space services|
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, October 26, 2017 — The Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia and Virgin Group (Virgin), have signed a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for a partnership under which PIF intends to invest approximately $1 billion into Virgin Galactic, The Spaceship Company and Virgin Orbit, with an option for $480 million of future additional investment in space services.
Part 5 of 5
By Douglas Messier
The morning of Dec. 3, 2016, began like so many others in Mojave. The first rays of dawn gave way to a brilliant sunrise that revealed a cloudless, clear blue sky over California’s High Desert.
This was hardly newsworthy. For most of the year, Mojave doesn’t really have weather, just temperatures and wind speeds. It had been literally freezing overnight; the mercury was at a nippy 28º F (-2.2º C) at 4 a.m. As for Mojave’s famous winds – an enemy of roofs, trees and big rigs, but the lifeblood of thousands of wind turbines that cover the landscape west of town – there really weren’t any. It was basically a flat calm.
In other words, it was a perfect day to fly.
From that list, I’ve extracted agreements with individual companies. Below you will find tables listing SAAs that NASA has signed with Virgin Group companies, Moon Express and NanoRacks. There is also a fourth table that has SAAs with a number of companies and organizations that we follow on Parabolic Arc.
SAAs come in three varieties: reimburseable, non-reimburseable and funded. Under reimburseable agreements, a company or organization will pay NASA for its services. No money exchanges hands under non-reimburseable agrements. And under funded agreements, NASA pays the company to perform work or provide services. (The space agency made substantial use of SAA’s in the Commercial Crew Program.)