Virgin Galactic Rolled Out Incomplete WhiteKnightTwo in July; Vehicle Lacked Power, Avionics…and Stuff

If you have been wondering why Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo has yet to fly despite being rolled out three months ago, wonder no longer. Apparently the vehicle was unfinished when it was unveiled in July, lacking almost everything that was required to actually fly. Like power, avionics and…oh yes…landing gear.

The news was not delivered by publicity happy Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson nor chatty company President Will Whitehorn. Instead, they left that to Michael Blum, founder and managing director of Repulse Bay Capital and a Virgin Galactic customer. He revealed the truth during the recent International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in New Mexico, Jeff Foust reports:

“Blum had just spent a week on Necker Island, Sir Richard Branson’s Caribbean island resort, where Branson and other Virgin Galactic officials talked about the status and future plans of the company. Blum confirmed some earlier reports that suggested that when WhiteKnightTwo (WK2), the carrier aircraft for SpaceShipTwo, was rolled out in late July (see “A White Knight for more than personal spaceflight”, The Space Review, August 4, 2008), it was not yet complete.

“‘What we saw there was the real thing, but it was lacking certain elements,’ he said during an October 22 panel on suborbital spaceflight. “It didn’t have any power plants, WhiteKnightTwo’s undcercarriage was sort of fake at that point, there were no real avionics in the aircraft.’ All of those things have since been finished, he said. WK2 has undergone a number of ground tests, ‘and that culminated a short while ago with a high-speed taxi’ of the aircraft.”

Certain elements, huh? That’s a nice way to phrase it. It’s like saying that the patient is fine, except that he’s missing his liver, kidneys and heart.

This adds more evidence to my theory about why the ceremony was held in mid-summer in the middle of the Mojave Desert.  The roll-out came three months before the vehicle was even set for test flights (the schedule has slipped into November). It also was held one year and a day after a fatal explosion at the Scaled Composites facility killed three workers and injured three others.

Virgin Galactic carefully controlled publicity on that day, flying paying suborbital customers and a select contingent of media folks to the desert facility aboard a specially chartered Virgin America aircraft.

It seems to have been an effective PR strategy. The publicity all but drowned out any questions about the explosion, the adequacy of Scaled Composites testing procedures, and the fines levied against the company by CalOSHA for alleged safety violations (the company appealed). Almost all of the stories from the media contingent were extremely positive, with little or no mentions of the accident.