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.

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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.
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FAA Bill Would Boost Commercial Space Spending

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:

  • 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.

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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.

SpaceShipTwo Hit Nearly Mach 2.5 in Successful Flight Test

SpaceShipTwo Unity during third flight test. (Credit: MarsScientific.com & Trumbull Studios)

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.

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More Awesome Photos of SpaceShipTwo’s Flight Test

WhiteKnightTwo with SpaceShipTwo Unity during the third powered flight test. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Some great shots of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo Unity during the third powered flight.

SpaceShipTwo Unity soars skyward during third powered flight. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Pictures from SpaceShipTwo Unity’s Powered Flight Test

SpaceShiptwo Unity soars skyward after being dropped from WhiteKnightTwo on May 26, 2018. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

A picture of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo’s powered flight from the great Ken Brown. Below is my video of the takeoff from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

I was using a new handheld camera so please excuse the shakiness of the video. Below is a picture that Ken snapped of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo as they flew overhead.

WhiteKnightTwo carries SpaceShipTwo Unity to its second powered flight. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Had a bit of a malfunction with the camera, so I didn’t get any video of the actual flight. Sorry about that. Given the camera and the distance involved, I’m not sure I would have picked up that much. But, I’ll try again next time.

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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