Sometime in 2020, if all goes according to plan, British billionaire Richard Branson will board Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity at Spaceport America in New Mexico and take the first commercial suborbital space flight in history.
The landmark flight, which Virgin has been trying to conduct for 15 years, will also be the culmination of a 30-year effort by New Mexico to become a commercial space power.
Virgin Galactic opened its Gateway to Space at Spaceport America in New Mexico to the press on Thursday. The opening came nearly eight years after Sir Richard Branson opened the hangar/terminal facility during a dedication ceremony in October 2011.
Earlier this week, the WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve carrier aircraft relocated to Spaceport America from Mojave. Calif. SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity is set to join it later this year for a series of three or four additional suborbital flight tests.
Branson plans to be aboard the first commercial flight from the New Mexico spaceport next year.
A Virgin Galactic spokeswoman tells me that SpaceShipTwo VSSUnity remains in Mojave as its passenger cabin is fitted out for commercial flights.
The spacecraft is set to join WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve at Spaceport America in New Mexico later this year to complete a series of flights that began in Mojave. Commercial suborbital flights are set to begin from there in 2020.
The company is planning an event on Thursday, Aug. 15, in which they will unveil the inside of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space in New Mexico.
Nearly eight years after Richard Branson dedicated the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space at Spaceport America before a crowd that included Titanic star Kate Winslet and British royal Princess Beatrice, his suborbital space tourism company is moving its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft there.
When Branson dedicated the gateway facility in October 2011, the giant building was largely empty. Virgin Galactic says it is now ready to show off what customers will experience inside the structure.
As we previously reported, Stratolaunch is up for sale. Paul Allen’s sister Jody Allen, the executor of her brother’s estate, has no interest in continuing the development of the giant airplane, which is designed to air launch rockets.
CNBC reports on the eye popping price tag:
Holding company Vulcan is seeking to sell Stratolaunch for $400 million, people familiar with the matter told CNBC. Vulcan is the investment conglomerate of late billionaire Paul Allen, a Microsoft co-founder. Allen died last October following complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The hefty price tag includes ownership of the airplane as well as the intellectual property and facilities.
Stratolaunch is the world’s largest airplane by wingspan, which stretches 385 feet — longer than an American football field. The plane is powered by six jet engines salvaged from Boeing 747 aircraft.
Allen’s vision of a massive plane that can launch rockets from the air was at least partially fulfilled in April, when Stratolaunch flew for the first time after about eight years in development. Based at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, the giant airplane flew for more than two hours before landing after what was deemed a successful first flight.
When the contract was announced in June 2015, it seemed like a blockbuster deal: satellite Internet provider OneWeb had placed an order for 39 launches with options for 100 more for Virgin Galactic’s (now Virgin Orbit’s) LauncherOne.
What made the order extraordinary was not just the large number of launches, but the fact that the rocket really didn’t even exist yet. (The fact that Richard Branson’s Virgin Group was an investor in OneWeb probably helped.)
Four years later, the blockbuster deal is a bust. According to a lawsuit filed this week by Virgin Orbit, OneWeb last year canceled 35 of the 39 planned launches., slicing most of the value from the $234 million deal.
SpaceNewsreports that Virgin Orbit orbit is suing for $46.32 million it claims OneWeb owes it from a $70 million contract termination fee.
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.
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. (more…)
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.
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…)
The budget of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA AST) would more than triple over the next five years according to a re-authorization bill hammered out by House and Senate negotiators.
FAA AST’s current budget of $22.6 million would increase as follows:
Wired has an entertaining story by Steven Levy about what Paul Allen and the team at Scaled Composites have been doing with Stratolaunch, whose enormous carrier plane nicknamed the Roc but also know as Composite Goose, Carbon Goose, Birdzilla and Stratosaurus.
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.
MOJAVE, Calif. (Virgin Galactic PR) — Virgin Galactic test pilots broke Mach 2 this morning, as VSS Unity took her third rocket-powered supersonic outing in less than four months. After a clean release from carrier aircraft VMS Eve at 46,500 ft, pilots Dave Mackay and Mike “Sooch” Masucci lit the spaceship’s rocket motor, before pulling up into a near vertical climb and powering towards the black sky at 2.47 times the speed of sound.