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A Short Review of Virgin Galactic’s Long History

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
September 27, 2019
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SpaceShipTwo fires its hybrid engine. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Today, Sept. 27, marks the 15th anniversary of Richard Branson announcing the launch of Virgin Galactic Airways. It’s been a long, winding road between that day and today, filled with many broken promises, missed deadlines, fatal accidents and a pair of spaceflights.

This year actually marks a double anniversary: it’s been 20 years since Branson registered the company and began searching for a vehicle the company could use to fly tourists into suborbital space.

Below is a timeline of the important events over that period.

Peter Diamandis

May 21, 1996: X Prize Foundation Founder Peter Diamandis announces a $10 million prize for the first privately-built crewed spacecraft capable of carrying three people to fly above 100 km (62.1 miles) twice within two weeks. Originally called the X Prize, it is later renamed the Ansari X Prize for the family backing it.

Scaled Composites Founder Burt Rutan, who was present in St. Louis for the announcement, vows to win the prize. He eventually develops the air-launched SpaceShipOne and the White Knight carrier aircraft. The entry will be backed by Microsoft Co-founder Paul Allen to the tune of $28 million.

1999: Richard Branson registers Virgin Galactic Airways as a company. Virgin Group officials begin looking for potential vehicles to launch tourists on suborbital flights.

Mid-2003: Virgin Group employee Alex Tai walks into a Scaled Composites hangar at Mojave Airport and discovers SpaceShipOne. Branson decides this is the technology he wants to use for Virgin Galactic.

Aug. 7, 2003: Scaled Composites pilot Mike Melvill pilots SpaceShipOne on its first glide flight after being released from White Knight.

Dec. 17, 2003: Scaled Composites pilot Brian Binnie makes SpaceShipOne’s first powered flight. The vehicle reaches Mach 2.1 and an altitude of 20.67 km (67,814 ft).

One glide and two powered flights follow over the next five months.

The author on the right with the video camera filming WhiteKnight with SpaceShipOne on the taxiway prior to the first commercial spaceflight. (Credit: John Criswick)

June 21, 2004: Melvill flies SpaceShipOne on the first private suborbital flight, reaching just over 100 km (62.1 miles).

Sept. 27, 2004: Branson launches Virgin Galactic Airways with plans to fly tourists on suborbital flights in the 2007-08 period. The company will license SpaceShipOne technology from Paul Allen; Scaled Composites will build the follow-on vehicle.

Virgin plans to invest £60 million ($108 million) to create a fleet of SpaceShipTwo vehicles and WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. The company plans to fly 3,000 passengers during is first five years with tickets costing £115,000 ($208,000) apiece. SpaceShipTwo vehicles will carry five passengers each.

The company’s first president is long-time Virgin Group executive Will Whitehorn,

Mike Melvill stands atop SpaceShipOne after a suborbital flight on Sept. 29, 2004. (Credit: RenegadeAven)

Sept. 29, 2004: Melvill flies SpaceShipOne above 100 km in the first of two planned suborbital flights to win the $10 Ansari X Prize.

Oct. 4, 2004: Binnie flies the second Ansari X Prize flight to win the $10 million. Allen splits the award with the Scaled Composites team.

Peter Diamandis and Burt Rutan on stage after SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize on Oct. 4, 2004.

July 28, 2005: Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites announce they have signed a deal to form The Spaceship Company, a joint venture to build SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo vehicles.

Dec. 14, 2005: Branson and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson announce that Virgin Galactic will locate its world headquarters at a custom built spaceport near Truth or Consequences. New Mexico will spend $225 million to build the spaceport on 27 square miles of state land.

Early Spaceport America artwork showed facilities built underground. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Completion of the spaceport is predicted for the 2009/2010 time period. Virgin Galactic plans to begin flights from the Southwest Regional Spaceport (later renamed Spaceport America) once construction is completed. In the meantime, development and testing will continue to take place in Mojave.

The company predicts it will fly 50,000 passengers during the first decade of operations using five SpaceShipTwo and two WhiteKnightTwo vehicles. Fifteen months earlier, Branson had forecast flying only 3,000 passengers in the first five years of commercial service.

January 26, 2006: Virgin Galactic announces an agreement with Spaceport Sweden to host SpaceShipTwo flights at Kiruna Airport.

An artist’s conception of SpaceShipTwo and the Northern Lights during a flight from Kiruna, Sweden. (Credit: Spaceport Sweden)

March 27, 2007: Virgin Galactic signs an agreement with New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) setting out the terms under which Virgin Galactic would lease approximately 83,400 square feet of hangar and terminal facilities at Spaceport America.

NMSA will build and own the Virgin Galactic facilities, and then lease them to Virgin Galactic in return for payments of approximately $27.5 million over 20 years.

A memorial plaque to three Scaled Composites engineers killed in 2007 is displayed in Mojave’s Legacy Park. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

July 26, 2007: A fatal explosion on a test stand in Mojave kills Scaled Composites employees Eric Blackwell, Todd Ivens and Charles Glenn May. Three other employees are hospitalized with serious injuries.

Work on SpaceShipTwo is suspended for about a year as the cause of the accident is investigated. Significant changes in the nitrous oxide tank are required.

September 4, 2007: Virgin Galactic announces that the Foster + Partners and URS team has won an international competition to build the company’s terminal-hangar facility at Spaceport America. The building will later be named the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space.

January 23, 2008: Virgin Galactic unveils designs for SpaceShipTwo and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.

Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo with Burt Rutan and Richard Branson

July 28, 2008: WhiteKnightTwo is rolled out at Mojave one year and two days after the fatal test stand explosion. The twin-fuselage aircraft is dubbed Virgin Mother Ship (VSS) Eve after Branson’s mother.

Dec. 21, 2008: WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve flies for the first time from Mojave.

Dec. 31, 2008: New Mexico announces that Virgin Galactic has signed a 20-year lease to serve as anchor tenant at Spaceport America.

June 19, 2009: Officials break ground at Spaceport America.

Sir Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic pilots, staffers and investors. To his right is Mohamed Badawy Al-Husseiny, CEO of Aabar, which made a $280 million in Virgin Galactic. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

July 28, 2009: Abu Dhabi’s aabar Investments signs a deal to invest $280 million for a 31.8 percent equity stake in Virgin Galactic. The company is valued at approximately $900 million.

Aabar also agrees to invest an additional $100 million to fund Virgin’s small-satellite launcher, which would be air launched from WhiteKnightTwo. The additional funding commitment is dependent on Virgin developing a viable plan for the booster.

Abu Dhabi plans to develop a spaceport in the United Arab Emirates to host suborbital flights.

The WhiteKnightTwo rolls out with SpaceShipTwo. (Photo Credit: Sam Coniglio)

December 7, 2009: SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise rolled out at Mojave.

March 22, 2010: SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise makes first captive carry flight aboard WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve.

May 17, 2010: Virgin Galactic names George Whitesides as its first CEO.

October 10, 2010: VSS Enterprise makes first glide flight.

SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise makes its first glide flight on Oct. 10, 2010. (Credit; Virgin Galactic)

October 22, 2010: Virgin Galactic and New Mexico officials dedicate the runway at the partially completed Spaceport America. The runway is officially named the Governor Bill Richardson Spaceway.

Branson predicts that commercial space tourism flights will begin in nine to 18 months (July 2011-April 2012).

Four big thumbs up from Richard Branson and then New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson at the Spaceport America runway dedication in 2010. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

November 9, 2010: The Spaceship Company and Virgin Galactic break ground on the Final Assembly, Integration and Test Hangar (FAITH) at the Mojave Air and Space Port. SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo vehicles will be built there.

George Whitesides

Dec. 23, 2010: President Will Whitehorn leaves to pursue other business opportunities. George Whitesides assumes dual position of CEO and president.

February 28, 2011: Virgin Galactic announces $1.6 million deal to fly six Southwest Research Institute scientists aboard SpaceShipTwo.

August 10, 2011: NASA selects Virgin Galactic to fly technology payloads aboard SpaceShipTwo under the Flight Opportunities Program.

September 19, 2011: Virgin Galactic opens the Final Assembly, Integration and Test Hangar (FAITH) at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

Oct. 13, 2011: NASA agrees to fly Flight Opportunities Program payloads aboard three chartered SpaceShipTwo flights under a contract valued at up to $4.5 million.

SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo on display during the Virgin Galactic career fair at TSC’s FAITH hangar in Mojave, Calif. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Oct. 18, 2011: Virgin Galactic and New Mexico officials dedicate the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space at Spaceport America. Branson predicts SpaceShipTwo flight tests occurring in 2012 and commercial flights from Spaceport America in early 2013.

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)

Oct. 19, 2011: aabar Investments announces that it had invested an additional $110 million in Virgin Galactic in July 2011. The Ahu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund has now invested a total of $390 million for a 37.8 percent ownership stake in Virgin Galactic.

March 22, 2012: Actor Ashton Kutcher announced as Virgin Galactic’s 500th customer.

July 10, 2012: Virgin Galactic announces plans for LauncherOne, a small satellite booster that will be air launched from WhiteKnightTwo.

Oct. 8, 2012: Virgin Galactic announces it has taken 100 percent ownership of The Spaceship Company by acquiring Scaled Composites’ 30 percent stake in the joint venture.

Jan. 15, 2013: Virgin Galactic begins monthly lease payments of about $85,000 at Spaceport America.

SpaceShipTwo in powered flight over Mojave.

April 29, 2013: SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise makes first powered flight test from Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Following the 16-second engine burn, Branson announces an increase in ticket prices from $200,000 to $250,000 and predicts he will fly by Christmas.

Sept. 13, 2013: A second powered flight of VSS Enterprise with a 20-second engine burn is conducted. Virgin Galactic says it is on track for the start of commercial service in 2014.

Jan. 10, 2014: A third powered flight test with a 20-second engine burn is conducted. Planned burn times of approximately 1 minute are not possible due to excessive engine oscillations and vibrations.

In the months that follow, modifications are made to VSS Enterprise to accommodate longer burns.

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

Oct. 31, 2014: SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise breaks up in flight due to premature deployment of vehicle’s feather during powered ascent. Scaled Composites co-pilot Mike Alsbury is killed in the breakup; pilot Pete Siebold parachutes to safety with serious but survivable injuries.

Mike Alsbury (Credit: Scaled Composites)

Soon afterward, Branson predicts a second SpaceShipTwo under construction in Mojave will be completed and ready for testing in five to six months. The vehicle, which will be named Unity, does not conduct a glide test until two years later.

Nov. 2, 2014: The National Transportation Safety Board announces a preliminary finding that co-pilot Alsbury unlocked VSS Enterprise’s feather mechanism prematurely during powered ascent. Aerodynamic forces caused the twin tail booms to deploy, reconfiguring the ship and causing the vehicle to break up.

The feather is designed to deploy during re-entry from space to give the vehicle a gentle descent. The co-pilot was to unlock the feather during powered ascent to make sure the locks released because the vehicle would likely not survive a feather down reentry. If the locks didn’t release during ascent, the pilots would have to abort the flight and return to the Mojave Air and Space Port.

SpaceShipTwo begins to break apart as its tail booms deploy prematurely. (Credit: Virgin Galactic/NTSB)

June 25, 2015: Virgin Galactic signs contract with OneWeb for 39 LauncherOne launches.

July 28, 2105: The NTSB releases the results of investigation into the crash of VSS Enterprise. The report blames Scaled for not anticipating that the feather could be unlocked prematurely during ascent, resulting in the loss the vehicle and crew. It also faults the company’s training of the crew.

SpaceShipTwo cockpit debris near Cantil, Calif. This is the location were the body of pilot Mike Alsbury came to rest. (Credit: NTSB)

The report also criticizes the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) oversight of the project. The FAA’s Office of Commercial Transportation (FAA AST) issued a waiver for pilot and software error to allow Scaled Composites to continue flight tests even though the company’s analysis of these areas were inadequate. NTSB also faulted other aspects of FAA AST’s oversight.

Sept. 14, 2015: Virgin Galactic announces upgrade to LauncherOne with dedicated aircraft.

October 14, 2015: Virgin Galactic wins $4.7 million NASA contract to launch more than a dozen small satellites under the space agency’s Venture Class Launch Services program.

LauncherOne ignites after being released from Cosmic Girl 747. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Dec. 3, 2015: Virgin Galactic announced that a modified Boeing 747-400 aircraft named Cosmic Girl will serve as the launch platform for LauncherOne.

Feb. 19, 2016: Virgin Galactic rolls out second SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, in a ceremony in Mojave.

Richard Branson rolls out Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Unity in Mojave. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Dec. 3, 2016: VSS Unity performs first glide flight in Mojave.

March 2, 2017: Virgin Galactic announces that it is spinning off its air-launch program into a separate company named Virgin Orbit.

Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud

Oct. 26, 2017: The Virgin Group announces a non-binding memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) for the investment of $1 billion in Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit and The Spaceship Company for a “significant stake’ in the three companies. The MOU includes an option for the sovereign wealth fund to invest an additional $480 million in Virgin’s space ventures.

April 1, 2018: Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, who is the effective leader of Saudi Arabia, visits Virgin Galactic’s facilities in Mojave to view the nation’s investment in Branson’s space company.

April 5, 2018: VSS Unity makes first powered flight. The ship reaches 25.7 km (84,300 ft) after a 30-second burn of its hybrid engine.

July 6, 2018: Virgin Galactic announces signing of framework agreement with Sitael and Altec to bring space tourism flights to Italy. Financial terms are not announced.

Oct. 2, 2018: Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi disappears after entering Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul, Turkey. U.S. and Turksh intelligence agencies conclude Khashoggi, a Saudi national who was critical of his nation’s leadership, was dismembered by a hit squad sent from Saudi Arabia.

Intelligence agencies conclude Mohammad bin Salman ordered the assassination. The crown prince denies the allegations. Eleven people are eventually arrested in connection with the death.

Oct. 11, 2018: Amid international outrage over Khashoggi’s disappearance, Branson announces suspension of talks with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund over the planned $1 billion investment.

Richard Branson with the pilots of SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Dec. 13, 2018: VSS Unity performs first powered flight above 50 miles (80.4 km) with Mark “Forger” Stucky and Frederick “CJ” Sturckow at the controls.

Feb. 7, 2018: Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao awards civilian astronaut wings to pilots Stucky and Sturckow in a ceremony in Washington, DC.

Feb. 13, 2018: David Mackay and Michael Masucci fly SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of 89.9 km (55.9 mi) . Chief astronaut trainer Beth Moses is also aboard to test out the experience for future passengers.

Chief Pilot David Mackay celebrates a successful flight with champagne. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

2019: Branson estimates the Virgin Group has spent $1 to $1.3 billion on Virgin Galactic, The Spaceship Company and Virgin Orbit. This is 10 times more than the original $108 million estimate for Virgin Galactic in 2004.

March 25, 2019: Virgin Galactic and the UAE Space Agency sign a memorandum of understanding covering SpaceShipTwo suborbital flights from the UAE; development of spaceport operational plans at the Al Ain airport; and collaboration on a center of excellence in microgravity research. Financial terms are not announced.

April 9, 2019: Mackay, Masucci and Moses are awarded commercial astronaut wings.

July 9, 2019: Virgin Galactic announced that a publicly traded company, Social Capital Hedosophia, will acquire a 49 percent equity stake in the company for $808 million. Virgin Galactic and aabar Investments will continue to own 51 percent of the company.

The reverse takeover will allow Virgin Galactic to go public without an initial public offering. The deal values Virgin Galactic at $1.5 billion. Venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya will become chairman of the Virgin Galactic Board of Directors. Former Twitter COO Adam Bain will becopme a board member.

Sept. 9, 2019: Shareholders of Social Capital Hedosophia shareholders approve extending the deadline for the completion of its merger with Virgin Galactic to Dec. 18.

4 responses to “A Short Review of Virgin Galactic’s Long History”

  1. ThomasLMatula says:

    Yes, the hybrid motor was a very bad decision, forced on them mostly by the deadline of the Ansari X-Prize. The hybrid motor is a mistake they will be paying for, literally, everytime they fly because of the turnaround costs associated with it. They would have been much better off buying an engine from XCOR instead. Then it would
    have been just fuel and go.

  2. ThomasLMatula says:

    Well done article! But you might be interested in some more of the prehistory of VG. From a Wired Article in 2013.

    Up: the story behind Richard Branson’s goal to make Virgin a galactic

    By Adam Higginbotham
    Thursday 7 March 2013

    “In 1995, following a conversation with Buzz Aldrin, Branson began seriously exploring the potential for democratising space travel. But when his head of special projects, Will Whitehorn, attempted to register the Virgin identity for use by a spaceline at Companies House in London, he discovered someone had beaten him to it. Branson had quietly trademarked the brand for use in space more than a decade earlier.”

    Sir Richard also notes in that article that Russian invited him to fly in space in the 1980’s, but he turned them down.

  3. Lee says:

    The dates in Feb 2019 are wonky. The flight with 3 people didn’t occur on the 13th, and the year was 2019, not 2018 as stated.

  4. Kenneth_Brown says:

    Doug, the photo of the crash site debris is one of mine.

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