LauncherOne’s Long & Winding Road to Orbit: A Timeline

LauncherOne stage separation. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
LauncherOne stage separation. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

If the current schedule holds, Virgin Galactic’s revamped LauncherOne program will enter commercial service sometime in 2018 after roughly a decade of development. During that period, the program has been redefined several times, lost two of the key people hired to lead it, and changed its launch platform from WhiteKnightTwo to a jumbo jet. The estimates for the initial flight tests also have slipped by about  four years from 2013 to 2017.

Below is a timeline of the program’s major events, milestones, announcements, hires and departures, and other things. Feel free to let me know if I’ve missed anything significant.

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Mojave Journal: The Ansari X Prize’s Awkward Family Reunion

Ansari X Prize 10th anniversary panel discussion on Oct. 4, 2014.
Ansari X Prize 10th anniversary panel discussion on Oct. 4, 2014.

One Year Ago, the Ansari X Prize Turned 10
It Was an Uncomfortable Birthday

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The planes kept coming and coming. One after another, they swooped out of a blue desert sky and touched down on the runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port. By mid-morning there were at least a dozen private jets stretched along the flight line running east from the Voyager restaurant toward the control tower. And even more were on their way.

And to what did Mojave owe this ostentatious display of wealth by the 1 percenters? They had come to the sun-splashed spaceport last Oct. 4 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Ansari X Prize. A decade earlier, Burt Rutan and his Paul Allen-funded team had won $10 million for sending the first privately-built manned vehicle into space twice within a two-week period.

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Virgin Galactic Focused on Larger Satellite Launch Vehicle

Artist's conception of WhiteKnightTwo with LauncherOne (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Artist’s conception of WhiteKnightTwo with LauncherOne (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Galactic is developing a rocket more powerful than LauncherOne to fulfill a recent order for 39 launches from its global satellite Internet partner OneWeb, according to sources familiar with the program.

LauncherTwo will use Virgin Galactic’s largest liquid fuel engine, NewtonThree, in its first stage, according to sources that insisted upon anonymity. A new engine, NewtonFour, will be developed for the second stage.

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Competition for Satellite Orders Heats Up as Airbus Opens Silicon Valley Innovation Center

Greg Wyler of OneWeb
Greg Wyler of OneWeb

Amy Svitak of ShowNews takes a look at the battle to win satellite contracts for the rival satellite constellations being pursued by OneWeb and SpaceX.

But in the scramble to compete for a chance to build such cutting-edge constellations, established satellite makers accustomed to producing a handful of high-dollar spacecraft each year have already learned a few things from Silicon Valley, where tech powerhouses are demanding the production of hundreds of small birds per year at a cost of around $1 million each, and even less.

“I think we can make an attractive proposition for the manufacturing of the satellites,” Airbus CEO Tom Enders told Aviation Week & Space Technology in May. Airbus Defense and Space, formerly Astrium, is one of five companies bidding on a constellation of more than 600 Internet satellites proposed by OneWeb. “We build hundreds of planes every year. Why wouldn’t we be able to also build hundreds of satellites?” asked Enders, adding that the company is willing to invest in OneWeb as a partner and to stand up manufacturing facilities in the U.S., as CEO Greg Wyler has stipulated.
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Google Lunar X Prize Extends Deadline Again

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The Google Lunar X Prize has once again extended its deadline, this time to Dec. 31, 2017. The announcement comes six months after the $30 million competition extended its deadline from Dec. 31, 2015 to the end of 2016.

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SpaceX’s Busy To-Do List for Rest of 2015

SpaceX vehicle integration building at Pad 39A. (Credit: NASA)
SpaceX vehicle integration building at Pad 39A. (Credit: NASA)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell was making the rounds last week in Washington, D.C., speaking before the Satellite 2015 conference and a House Armed Services subcommittee meeting. Much of the focus was on the latter, where Shotwell engaged in a she said-he said battle over launch costs with United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno.

More interesting were the updates Shotwell provided on SpaceX’s plans for 2015 and beyond. What emerged is just how crowded the company’s agenda is for the rest of the year. The table below provides a summary.

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Musk, Page, Bezos & Branson Lead List of Disruptive Innovators

branson_kissing_sstwo
SpaceX’s Elon Musk, Google’s Larry Page, Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos and Virgin Group Founder Richard Branson has been named the most effective CEO’s in achieving disruptive innovation among established companies in a new survey.

The poll was conducted by Big Think, where important people ponder big things, and the Singularity University, which puts the exponent in  exponential technology.  The poll was apparently taken in January and involved an unidentified number of Singularity University program participants.

The four men, who are heavily invested in various space projects,  beat out such business luminaries as Tim Cook of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, and Jack Ma of Alibaba.

Number of Billionaires Investing in Space Projects Grows

Forbes has published its annual list of the planet’s billionaires. A small but growing number of them are either directly supporting major space projects or doing so through the companies that they run.

FORBES RANKNAMEAGE
2015 NET WORTH (BILLIONS)
SOURCE(S) OF WEALTH
SPACE INVESTMENT(S)
 15Jeff Bezos51 $34.8Amazon.comBlue Origin
16Mark Zuckerberg30
 $33.4FacebookGlobal satellite network
19Larry Page41$29.7 GoogleSpaceX, Planetary Resources, Planetary Ventures, Google Lunar X Prize, Skybox
20Sergey Brin 41 $29.2GoogleSpaceX, Planetary Ventures, Google Lunar X Prize, Skybox
43Charles Ergen62$19.8DISH NetworkDISH Network
51Paul Allen62 $17.5 Microsoft, investmentsStratolaunch Systems, SETI, Mojave Aerospace Ventures (SpaceShipOne)
100Elon Musk43$12PayPal, Tesla Motors, SpaceX, SolarCitySpaceX
137Eric Schmidt59$9.1GoogleSpaceX, Google Lunar X Prize, Planetary Ventures, Skybox
330Richard Branson
64$4.8Virgin GroupVirgin Galactic, Planetary Resources, OneWeb
1006Kavitark Ram Shriram58$1.9Google, venture capitalPlanetary Resources
1105H. Ross Perot, Jr.56$1.8 Computer services, real estatePlanetary Resources
1324Charles Simonyi 67$1.4MicrosoftPlanetary Resources
1415Peter Sperling55$1.3University of PhoenixEcliptic Enterprises

I’ve added Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook to the list this year. His company is reportedly working on a global broadband network that would involve satellites, although details of the plan have not been made public.

I’ve left off Cirque du Soleil’s Guy Laliberte, who came in at number 1006 with a net worth of $1.9 billion. Although he once took a trip to the International Space Station, he is not known to be funding any major space projects at the moment.

Update: I’ve added Charles Ergen and Peter Sperling to the list. Big shout out to Rex Ridenoure over at Ecliptic Enterprises.

Google Invested $900 Million in SpaceX

Google_logo_newGoogle invested $900 million of the approximately $1 billion in new funds raised by SpaceX last month, according a document the company filed with the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) on Monday. This means that Fidelity Investments contributed the other $100 million.
In the filing, Google said it invested the funds “to support continued innovation in the areas of space transport, reusability, and satellite manufacturing.” The money is believed to be focused on a plan to launch 4,000 satellites to provide global broadband coverage.
Google is already experimenting with this technology in Project Loon, which uses high altitude balloons to delivery Internet to remote areas.
“Loon has helped students in Brazil and farmers in New Zealand experience the power of an internet connection for the first time,” the company said in its filing. “And as the program expands, we hope to bring this to more and more people — creating opportunities that simply did not exist before for millions of people, all around the world.”
Google also discussed its $478 million acquisition of Skybox Imaging.
“We expect the acquisition to keep Google Maps accurate with up-to-date imagery and, over time, improve internet access and disaster relief,” the company said. “Of the total purchase price of $478 million, $6 million was cash acquired, $69 million was attributed to intangible assets, $388 million was attributed to goodwill, and $15 million was attributed to net assets acquired. The goodwill of $388 million is primarily attributable to the synergies expected to arise after the acquisition. Goodwill is not expected to be deductible for tax purposes.”

Google Increases Financial Commitment to Google Lunar X Prize

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Google has increased the maximum amount it will give out in the Google Lunar X Prize from $30 million to $40 million, the XPrize announced.

The increase was made to accommodate a series of milestone prizes the competition awarded this week to five of the 18 teams in the competition. A total of $5.25 million was awarded to Astrobotic, Hakuto, Moon Express, Part-time Scientists and Team Indus. The amounts ranged from $500,000 to $1.75 million.

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XPRIZE Awards $5.25 Million in Milestone Prizes to 5 Teams

SAN FRANCISCO (XPRIZE PR)  XPRIZE, the global leader in incentivized prize competition, today announced that five Google Lunar XPRIZE teams have been awarded a combined US$5.25 million in recognition of key technological advancements toward their quest to land a private spacecraft on the surface of the moon. Determined by a judging panel of science, aeronautics and space industry experts that evaluated numerous tests over the past year, the Milestone Prizes honor hardware and software innovations needed to overcome technical risks in the three crucial areas—Imaging, Mobility and Landing systems—all of which are necessary to complete a successful Google Lunar XPRIZE mission.

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Planetary Resources Does Davos

planetary_resources
Fortune Magazine’s Stephen Gandel is over in Davos, Switzerland this week, hobnobbing with the rich, famous and brilliant attendees who meet to contemplate solutions to the planet’s many problems at the World Economic Forum.

He has an entertaining piece about bumping into Planetary Resources’ President (and Chief Asteroid Miner) Chris Lewicki at a wine bar. Apparently, their discussion didn’t go much deeper than a description of the company’s plans to mine water and other materials from the Solar System’s orbiting piles of rock.

After I asked a few more questions about his company—like “is there really a lot of demand right now for gas stations and bottle water in outer space?”—Lewiski told me to stop being a critic. Every industry, he said, has to start somewhere. Yes. Dream big. This is Davos, after all.

That’s funny. And pretty impressive. Most start-ups lack the funds and connections to attend such an exclusive gathering. But, if you’re backed by multiple billionaires that include Eric Schmidt and Larry Page from Google, that’s not really a problem.

Seattle, Mojave Duel to be Silicon Valley of Space

Elon Musk (Credit: SpaceX)
Elon Musk (Credit: SpaceX)

With last week’s visit of Elon Musk and his announcement of a new facility to design and build a 4,000-satellite constellation, Seattle Weekly is reviving the region’s claim to be the “Silicon Valley of space.”

That might be a bit of a surprise to Silicon Valley, the home of some cool space start-ups and the source (via Google) of a lot of Musk’s satellite money.

The moniker is also probably surprising to some folks in Mojave, which also has staked its claim to that title from time to time. Valley Public Radio talks to Mojave Air and Space Port CEO/General Manager Stu Witt and Leonard David of Space.com about Mojave, commercial space and the loss of SpaceShipTwo.

Is Kern County The Next Frontier For Aerospace Innovation?

It’s a bit of a disappointing discussion. Both Leonard and Stu appear more afraid of the government coming in with regulations than they are of Scaled continuing to kill people on this program. Ten years, four deaths and one wrecked spaceship later, and this program hasn’t come anywhere near space.

That’s not exactly a shining example of NewSpace competency. And shouldn’t that raise some basic questions about Scaled, its design and safety protocols, and Virgin Galactic’s rush to move forward?

And, as the FAA’s George Nield has pointed out, these guys aren’t exactly the Wright brothers. They’re not inventing a new mode of transportation from whole cloth. People have been flying into space for more than 50 years. There’s a lot of good, proven safety practices out there. Without some mandatory regulations, Nield fears that some irresponsible operator will ruin it for everyone in the industry.

That’s the argument, anyway. Whether you agree with it or not, it would have been nice if it had come up in the discussion. I guarantee you it will be a point of contention at the FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference next month.

Year in Review: A Look at Virgin Galactic Developments in 2014

WhiteKnightTwo visited Spaceport America for the first time in three years on Wednesday. Below, you can see a full-scale model of SpaceShipTwo on the ramp. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
WhiteKnightTwo visited Spaceport America for the first time in three years on Wednesday. Below, you can see a full-scale model of SpaceShipTwo on the ramp. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Continuing our look back at 2014, we review progress at Virgin Galactic. While the loss of SpaceShipTwo on Oct. 31 understandably dominated the headlines, there were a number of other newsworthy developments at the company last year.

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SpaceX Raises $1 Billion in Financing

spacex_logoAn update from SpaceX:

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has raised a billion dollars in a financing round with two new investors, Google and Fidelity. They join existing investors Founders Fund, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Valor Equity Partners and Capricorn. Google and Fidelity will collectively own just under 10% of the company.

SpaceX designs, manufactures, and launches the world’s most advanced rockets and spacecraft. This funding will be used to support continued innovation in the areas of space transport, reusability, and satellite manufacturing.

This funding round values SpaceX at just under $10 billion. The announcement comes one week after SpaceX CEO Elon Musk unveiled plans for a constellation of 4,000 satellites that would provide communications worldwide.