Virgin Galactic Getting Closer to Powered Flight Tests

SpaceShipTwo glides to a landing at Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides spoke at the 20th Mars Society Convention last week where he gave an update on his company’s effort to reach space.

Whitesides said the company has “a very small number” of glide tests remaining for SpaceShipTwo Unity before the vehicle begins powered flights. He did not give a timeline for when Virgin Galactic would light the motor in flight.

Unity has conducted six glide flights since last December. The most recent one was on Aug. 4.

Whitesides showed a video of hot fire of the spacecraft’s hybrid engine. He said engineers had completed testing on the engine, which he called the most advanced hybrid in the world.

Two additional SpaceShipTwo vehicles are under construction at the Mojave Air and Space Port, he added. The cabin pieces of one of them were recently bonded together. The new vehicles will be ready for testing a year or two, Whitesides said.

No End in Sight for Spaceport America Tax

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

The tax increase that Sierra County voters approved in 2008 to support the construction of Spaceport America has no expiration date and no restrictions on the use of excess revenues that might be collected each year, according to the ordinance passed by county commissioners.

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NASA Space Act Agreements with Virgin Galactic, Moon Express, NanoRacks and More

NASA has released a document listing the 1,206 active Space Act Agreements  (SAAs) the agency has with commercial companies, non-profit organizations and state and local governments.

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.)

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Dona Ana County Residents Could End Up Paying for Spaceport Indefinitely

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

The tax that residents of Dona Ana County voted to impose upon themselves to help fund the development of Spaceport America has no expiration date, meaning it could continue indefinitely after bonds used to pay for the construction are paid off in 2028, according to a review by KRWG TV/Radio.

Critics of the spaceport have said the .25 cent increase in the gross receipts tax should end after the construction bonds are paid off. They have also objected to the use of taxes in excess of what is needed to pay off the bonds to plug holes in the spaceport’s budget. They want the money to be used to pay off the bonds early.

KRWG’s Fred Martino did something that apparently had not occurred to anyone: he dug up the 2007 ordinance that county commissioners approved for the tax. The document has no expiration date and no restrictions on using revenues for spaceport operations.

To change the situation, county commissioners would need to pass an ordinance ending the tax and restricting the use of surplus tax revenues for operations.

New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) CEO Dan Hicks said he needs the tax to continue so the authority will have funding to expand the spaceport and attract new tenants to it. Spaceport America is in stiff competition with other spaceports around the country, he said.

NMSA has struggled financially due to years of delays by anchor tenant Virgin Galactic in flying suborbital space tourist flights from the southern New Mexico facility.

Sierra County voters also approved a similar tax increase to help pay for the spaceport.

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Investigative Series on Spaceport America Ends With a Whimper

SpaceShipTwo glides over the Mojave Desert after being released from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship. (Credit; Virgin Galactic)

The fifth and final installment of NMPolitics.net’s series on Spaceport America was published today: After years of delays, Virgin Galactic prepares for spaceflights from NM

The story mostly features interviews with Virgin Galactic officials outlining their plans to start commercial operations from New Mexico. There will be a series of additional flight tests in Mojave, Calif., and then SpaceShipTwo will move down to Spaceport America for some additional tests before the start of commercial flights. Richard Branson has been prediction ticket holders will start flying in 2018.

In other words, nothing we haven’t been hearing for years and years, albeit with a shiny new set of dates.

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How Much Secrecy Does Spaceport America Need?

Richard Branson and his children hang out with Project Bandaloop dancers during the dedication of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space facility. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

The fourth installment of NMPolitics.net’s five-part series on Spaceport America was published today. How much secrecy does Spaceport America need?

Picking up on a theme covered in the third installment, this story details the lengths to which Spaceport America officials have gone to keep secret details of deals they have concluded with tenants.

“If you were to ask them would they want their leases out in the public they would say no,” [New Mexico Spaceport Authority CEO Dan] Hicks said. “…We just don’t want to have additional burdens on them or scrutiny on them.”

That’s a controversial stance in a poor state that has invested more than $220 million in Spaceport America – a state whose law intends that the public be given access to “the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government,” which it calls “an essential function of a representative government.”

There’s a real tension created by the public/private partnership that is the spaceport. On one hand, greater secrecy may help attract companies that demand it, and with them may come good-paying jobs the state needs. On the other hand is the principle that opening the spaceport’s finances builds accountability and public trust that is key to winning the government funding on which the spaceport also depends.

Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, sponsored legislation on behalf of the spaceport earlier this year that would have let the agency keep rent payments, trade secrets and other information secret. One committee approved the bill, but then it died.

These days Papen says she supports withholding company trade secrets from the public. But she no longer backs secrecy for money coming into the spaceport from private companies.

The spaceport authority didn’t always keep agreement terms secret. For example, Virgin Galactic’s development and lease agreements were released years ago without anything being redacted.

The situation is different at the Mojave Air and Space Port, which is a public general aviation airport run by an elected board. Lease agreements are included in board packets that are available to the public.

The fifth and final installment looking at anchor tenant Virgin Galactic’s preparations for space tourism flights from Spaceport America will be published on Friday.

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Spaceport America Risks Becoming Even Bigger Money Pit

The Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space terminal hangar facility (center), Spaceport Operations Center (Left) and “Spaceway”
(Runway) at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

The second installment of NMPolitics.net’s five-part series on Spaceport America dropped today. Funding woes could ‘cripple’ NM spaceport as other states invest in space race

This one deals with financing at Spaceport America. It requires a bit of understanding of the history of how it was funded.

So, here’s the back story: In 2007 and 2008, residents of Dona Ana and Sierra counties approved a quarter cent increase in the sales tax to help pay for the construction of Spaceport America, where billionaire Richard Branson plans to send rich people on suborbital joy rides.

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Series on Spaceport America Looks on the Bright Side

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

NMPolitics.net began a five-part series on Spaceport America today. Is Spaceport America taking flight? is the first installment.

The piece is fairly optimistic on the financial front, perhaps too much so. It examines positive financial impact on the local economy to date and projects forward to when Virgin Galactic begins flying commercially from the facility, possibly next year.
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Start-up Space Blasts Off

Bryce Space and Technology has produced a new report, Start-up Space: Update on Investment in Commercial Space Ventures.

Below is the executive summary. You can also download the full report.

Executive Summary

The Start-Up Space series examines space investment in the 21st century and analyzes investment trends, focusing on investors in new companies that have acquired private financing. Space is continuing to attract increased attention in Silicon Valley and in investment communities world-wide. Space ventures now appeal to investors because new, lower-cost systems are envisioned to follow the path terrestrial tech has profitably traveled: dropping system costs and massively increasing user bases for new products, especially new data products. Large valuations and exits are demonstrating the potential for high returns.
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Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Flight Test This Morning

First flight since June. Should be interesting. The weather finally cleared this week. It had been cloudy and rainy the last few days.

Virgin Galactic just confirmed on Twitter that this is a glide flight with motor installed in SpaceShipTwo and water ballast to simulate the ship being fueled.

UPDATE NO. 2:  Looks like they still have at least one more glide flight to go before powered flights begin. In response to a question about whether the next flight would be powered, CEO George Whitesides responded on Twitter: “No, not quite yet. Still have a few more things to work and test before we get to that milestone. But getting closer now.”

UPDATE: Successful flight. Tested ship with different CG (center of gravity) with engine installed and water ballast. Conducted nitrous dump while still attached to WhiteKnightTwo. Also tested the feather system. This was the sixth glide flight for SpaceShipTwo Unity and the 36th of the program.

If all that went well (and it likely did), then I’m guessing they’re ready to start powered flight tests within the next month or so. Richard Branson has been predicting SpaceShipTwo will fly to space by the end of the year, which is quite possible if this is the final glide flight.

This was a bit of a tough flight to follow from the ground. I lost the spacecraft in the cloud cover we’ve had all week. There were white clouds for a change; it was stormy for the last few days with dark clouds and some rain and lightning. Pretty standard for this time of year; we can get storms in the High Desert in August.

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Matsumori Leaves Virgin Galactic, Joins BridgeSat

Barry Matsumori

BOSTON, July 12, 2017 (BridgeSat PR) – Allied Minds plc (LSE: ALM) today announces the appointment of Barry Matsumori as CEO of BridgeSat, Inc. (BridgeSat) effective 17 July 2017. The appointment follows the successful Series A funding round announced by BridgeSat on 5 May 2017. BridgeSat, an Allied Minds subsidiary, was founded on technology sourced from The Aerospace Corporation, seeking to revolutionise satellite data downlinking with an advanced optical communications network. Delivering faster, more reliable and affordable data transmission to the rapidly growing low earth orbit (LEO) satellite sector, will enable a new era of applications and services.

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Mojave: The Once and Future Spaceport

Sunset from the Mojave Air and Space Port on Oct. 30, 2014. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

At some point in the next six months, the Mojave Air and Space Port could experience something that not happened here in 13 long years: an actual spaceflight.

Richard Branson is predicting that Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity could reach space on a flight test from Mojave by December. For once, his prediction does not appear to be based on unrealistic hopes, the need to reassure customers about delays, or a complete misunderstanding of what is happening on the ground here.

In other words, it’s actually plausible. Whether it will happen on that schedule…that’s another question. Flight test is notoriously unpredictable and very tough on timetables.

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