House Measure Boosts FAA Commercial Space & Spaceport Spending

Mojave Air and Space Port (Credit: Douglas Messier)

The FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA AST) would see its budget more than triple over the next five years while the nation’s spaceports would receive more financial support for infrastructure under a measure passed by the House on Friday.

Under the bill, FAA AST would received just under $22.6 million for fiscal year 2018, with the following increases for the years to follow:

  • FY 2019: $33,038,000
  • FY 2020: $43,500,000
  • FY 2021: $54,970,000
  • FY 2022: $64,449,000
  • FY 2023: $75,938,000.

FAA AST has received only small budget increases in recent years despite experiencing a large increases in its workload as it oversaw the nation’s burgeoning commercial space sector.

Despite the funding stipulated in the reauthorization bill, House and Senate appropriators are not required to fund FAA AST at these levels.

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Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Powered Flight Set for Thursday Morning

SpaceShipTwo flies under power for the third time in January 2014. (Credit: Ken Brown)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The preliminaries are over. And now the moment of truth has arrived for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Almost 3.5 years after SpaceShipTwo Enterprise broke up during a flight test on Halloween 2014, the company is scheduled to conduct the first powered flight of SpaceShipTwo Unity later this morning from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The test was preceded by seven glide flights.

I’ll be providing live updates on the flight on Twitter @spacecom.

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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.

House Science Committee Approves Commercial Space Support Vehicle Act

The second SpaceShipTwo is carried aloft by WhiteKnightTwo on its first captive carry flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

The House Science Committee has approved a bill that would allow Virgin Galactic and other companies to obtain FAA licenses and experimental permits to use space support vehicles for training and research.

“Companies would like to utilize space support vehicles to train crews and spaceflight participants by exposing them to the physiological effects encountered in spaceflight or conduct research in reduced gravity environments,” said Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), who introduced the measure.

“This legislation creates a foundation for more companies to engage in human space flight activities and support commercial space operations. I would like to thank Rep. Al Lawson, Chairman Lamar Smith and Subcommittee Chairman Brian Babin for their support of this important, bipartisan legislation,” Posey added.

Virgin Galactic would like to use the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft that launches SpaceShipTwo for training and research purposes. The legislation would also affect the Stratolaunch air-launch system and Starfighters Aerospace, which wants to train people in F-104 aircraft.

“The Commercial Space Support Vehicle Act provides the appropriate regulatory approach – by authorizing the secretary of transportation to develop the regulations by March 1, 2019, allowing licensed space support flights,” Posey said.

VSS Unity Successfully Completes High Speed Glide Flight

SpaceShipTwo Unity on the runway after its seventh glide flight. (Credit; Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic Flight Test Update
Mojave, Calif.
Jan. 11, 2018

January blues? Not a problem in Mojave today as VSS Unity successfully completed her seventh glide flight!

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Branson’s Autobiography Part II: A Bad Day at Koehn Lake

SpaceShipTwo breaks up after the premature deployment of its feather system. (Credit: MARS Scientific/NTSB)

Part 2 of 3

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Finding My Virginity: The New Autobiography
Richard Branson
Portfolio
Oct. 10, 2017
482 pages

In his new book, Richard Branson recounts that on the morning of Oct. 31, 2014, he was on his private Caribbean island in a state of “schoolboy excitement.” The reason? Three time zones away in California’s Mojave Desert, Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites were conducting the longest and most ambitious flight test of the SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism vehicle.

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Richard Branson’s Latest Memoir Gets Lost in Space

SpaceShipTwo Enterprise after being released for its final flight on Oct. 31, 2014. (Credit: Virgin Galactic/NTSB)

Mogul’s Account of Virgin Galactic Most Revealing for What It Doesn’t Say

Part 1 of 3

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Finding My Virginity: The New Autobiography
Richard Branson
Portfolio
Oct. 10, 2017
482 pages

One day in mid-2003, Virgin Atlantic pilot Alex Tai wandered into a hangar at Mojave Airport and discovered SpaceShipOne, a  suborbital rocket plane that Scaled Composites’ Founder Burt Rutan was secretly building to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize for the first privately-built crewed vehicle to reach space twice in two weeks.

The chance discovery would eventually solve separate problems the famed aircraft designer and Tai’s boss, Richard Branson, were trying to solve. Rutan’s spaceship was being funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, who wanted to win the prize but had no plans to finance a commercial follow-on spacecraft.

Four years earlier, Branson had registered a new company named Virgin Galactic Airways and set off in search of someone to build a vehicle capable of carrying passengers into space. Those efforts had come to naught until Tai made his discovery at the dusty airport in California’s High Desert.

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Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic Eye Human Spaceflights in 2018

New Shepard booster fires its engine just over the landing pad. (Credit: Blue Origin)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

While Boeing and SpaceX move toward flying astronauts to the International Space Station this year, there are two other companies working on restoring the ability to launch people into space from U.S. soil.

Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic aren’t attempting anything as ambitious as orbital flight. Their aim is to fly short suborbital hops that will give tourists and scientists several minutes of microgravity to float around and conduct experiments in.

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Virgin Galactic Promises New Mexico that 2018 will be the Year

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

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Galactic Vice President Richard DalBello was in Sante Fe, NM on Wednesday with an optimistic message about the company’s plans to fly tourists to space from the state-owned Spaceport America.

“We think we’re at the beginning of a very exciting period,” he told a legislative committee in Santa Fe. “We know you’ve waited a long time and we are coming.”

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Update on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo

Virgin Galactic President Mike Moses was at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) conference in Las Cruces, NM, this week updating everyone on the company’s effort to fly people into suborbital space aboard SpaceShipTwo.  Meanwhile, the spacecraft’s mother ship flew in to make an appearance at it’s future home, Spaceport America (see video, above).

Unity has been performing very well, sometimes better than models predicted,” Moses said. “Things are right on track where they need to be.”

Next up will be powered flight testing. While Unity is being tested, two more vehicles are being built to increase the fleet once it’s proven in powered flight. That, Moses said, is an indication of Virgin Galactic’s commitment to have multiple vehicles ready when commercial manned flights begin at Spaceport America.

Crews are putting final touches on the propulsion system and “pretty soon” will be evaluating supersonic boost. Virgin founder Richard Branson, in Helsinki last week, told Business Insider “We are hopefully about three months before we are in space, maybe six months before I’m in space.”

When questioned about that statement by ISPCS session moderator Ariane Cornell, Moses took a more conservative tone.

“Richard always poses a challenge, he likes to push us pretty hard,” Moses said. “Sometimes I wish he wouldn’t talk so much. We hope to be in space by the end of this year. We’ll take our time with it. We’re going to fly when we are ready.”

Read the full story.

A Niche in Time: First Flight

Richard Branson addresses the crowd before SpaceShipTwo’s glide flight. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Part 5 of 5

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

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.

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Video About Virgin Galactic Ground Crew

Video Caption: The Virgin Galactic ground crew plays an essential role in our commercial spaceline operations. Meet our spaceship mechanics and watch them prepare our vehicles VSS Unity and VMS Eve for a flight — right up until they pull chocks for taxi and take-off.

Questions Raised Over Brian Cox Documentary on Virgin Galactic & Commercial Space

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By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Back in February, Professor Brian Cox traveled here to Mojave with his friends Richard and Sam Branson to watch the third glide flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity.

Bowled over by what he saw even before the suborbital tourism vehicle glided overhead, Cox gave what amounted to a rousing endorsement of Virgin Galactic and SpaceShipTwo to a gathering of company employees.

“People ask me a lot because I’m a space geek and I’m obviously an evangelist for space, ‘Would you fly to space?” Cox said with Richard Branson seated beside him. “And I’ve always said, ‘Well yes and no, because in some sense it’s a dangerous thing to do.’ However, the moment I walked in this hangar and saw that aircraft, I thought, I want to get on that aircraft. So the answer is now is 100 percent yes.”

What was not widely known at the time was that Cox was filming a BBC-commissioned documentary about commercial space. And the company the corporation commissioned to co-produce it, Sundog Pictures, is owned and run by none other than Cox’s good friend, Sam Branson.

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Posey Introduces Legislation to Allow Passengers on Experimental Aircraft

WhiteKnightTwo back safely on the runway after a successful SpaceShipTwo glide flight. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) has introduced legislation that would authorize experimental aircraft such as WhiteKnightTwo to carry spaceflight participants and crew for training and research purposes.

The measure, which is co-sponsored by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), would enable Virgin Galactic and other operators to avoid the time consuming and expensive process of having their aircraft undergo FAA certification.

WhiteKnightTwo is the carrier aircraft for Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital space plane. The company wants to use the vehicle to train spaceflight participants and to conduct microgravity research.

In addition to WhiteKnightTwo, H.R.2571 could open the door for passengers to train aboard retired military jet fighters.

The legislation has been on the wish list of Virgin Galactic and the commercial spaceflight industry for a number of years.