Touchdown! Virgin Spacecraft Prototype Soars Over Mojave, Testing Re-Entry System

Virgin Galactic has finished yet another stepping-stone to its first commercial spaceflight. The New Mexico-based company sent SpaceShipTwo aloft on a test of the re-entry system Oct. 7, making a safe landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

The company is among a handful of firms competing to bring well-heeled tourists into suborbital space. There are more than 700 people signed up to take a flight on SpaceShipTwo, with tickets running at $250,000 per seat. The spacecraft is put into the air using a carrier aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo, then separates for a brief flight in space. Exact timing for the first flight has not been disclosed yet, but it is expected to be in the coming months.

“SpaceShipTwo is safely back on the ground after her 54th test flight, including her tenth test of the feather system,” wrote Virgin Galactic in a tweet yesterday (Oct. 7). “Coupled with several good, full duration ground tests of SS2’s rocket motor in recent weeks, today’s flight brings spaceflight closer.”

Feathered Flight during Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's third powered flight on January 10,  2014 over the Mojave desert. This image was taken by MARS Scientific as part of the Mobile Aerospace Reconnaissance System optical tracking system.
Feathered Flight during Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo’s third powered flight on January 10, 2014, over the Mojave desert. This image was taken by MARS Scientific as part of the Mobile Aerospace Reconnaissance System optical tracking system.

It’s been a long road to space for Virgin Galactic, which last week commemorated the 10th anniversary of the predecessor prototype spacecraft (SpaceShipOne) making a second flight into suborbital space Oct. 4, 2004, to win the Ansari X-Prize — the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first human spaceflight in 1961.

The spacecraft was built by Scaled Composites and today is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan subsequently designed SpaceShipTwo, but has since retired.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson has pushed back the first spaceflight of the new spacecraft several times over the years. In recent statements he has said he was hoping the spacecraft would be ready early next year, but in an NBC news report from last week he simply said SpaceShipTwo is “on the verge” of starting flights.

More pictures from yesterday’s test flight are below.

Revolutionary Air-Launched Commercial Rocket to Orbit Announced by Microsoft Billionaire Paul Allen

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A mega quartet of luminaries led by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen and legendary aerospace designer Burt Rutan have joined forces to create a revolutionary new approach to space travel. This new privately funded venture entails the development of a mammoth air-launched space transportation system that aims to dramatically cut the high costs and risks of launching both cargo and human crews to low Earth orbit.

Allen and Rutan are teaming up with Elon Musk, founder of Space Exploration Technologies Corp, or SpaceX, and Michael Griffin, former NASA Administrator, to build the world’s largest aircraft ever flown and use it as a platform to loft a multi-stage SpaceX rocket that will deliver a payload of some 13,500 pounds into earth orbit, about the same class as a Delta II.

Allen and Rutan hope to build upon the spaceflight revolution that they pioneered with the suborbital SpaceShipOne in 2004, which was the first privately funded spaceship to reach the edge of space, and now take the critical next step and actually vault all the way to orbit.


Video Caption: Stratolaunch Systems is pioneering innovative solutions to revolutionize space transportation to orbit.

To accomplish this innovative leap, Allen and Rutan, announced the formation of a new company, funded by Allen, called Stratolaunch Systems at a press briefing today, Dec. 13, held in Seattle, WA. Allen is a billionaire and philanthropist who has funded a host of projects to advance science,

“Our national aspirations for space exploration have been receding,” Allen lamented at the start of the briefing. “This year saw the end of NASA’s space shuttle program. Constellation, which would have taken us back to the moon, has been mothballed as well. For the first time since John Glenn, America cannot fly its own astronauts into space.”

“With government funded spaceflight diminishing, there’s a much expanded opportunity for privately funded efforts.”

Rutan said that Stratolaunch will build a 1.2 million pound carrier aircraft sporting a wingspan of 385 feet – longer than a football field – and which will be powered by six 747 engines on takeoff. The carrier will be a twin fuselage vehicle, like the WhiteKnight developed by Rutan to launch SpaceShipOne.

Air launch of SpaceX rocket to orbit

The 120 foot long SpaceX rocket, weighing up to 490,000 pounds, will be slung in between and dropped at an altitude of about 30,000 feet for the remaining ascent to orbit.

SpaceX will construct a shorter, less powerful version of the firms existing Falcon 9 rocket, which may be either a Falcon 4 or Falcon 5 depending on specifications.

The new launch system will operate from a large airport or spaceport like the Kennedy Space Center, require a 12,000 feet long runway for takeoff and landing and be capable of flying up to 1,300 nautical miles to the payload’s launch point. Crews aboard the huge carrier aircraft will also conduct the countdown and firing of the booster and will monitor payload blasting to orbit.

“I have long dreamed about taking the next big step in private space flight after the success of SpaceShipOne – to offer a flexible, orbital space delivery system,” Allen said. “We are at the dawn of radical change in the space launch industry. Stratolaunch Systems is pioneering an innovative solution that will revolutionize space travel.”

The goal of Stratolaunch is to “bring airport-like operations to the launch of commercial and government payloads and, eventually, human missions,” according to a company statement.

Plans call for a first orbital flight within five years by around 2016. Test flights could begin around 2015.

“We believe this technology has the potential to someday make spaceflight routine by removing many of the constraints associated with ground launched rockets,” said Mike Griffin. “Our system will also provide the flexibility to launch from a large variety of locations.”

Mike Griffin added that the venture is aiming for the small to medium class payload market similar to what has been served by the venerable Delta II rocket, which is now being retired after decades of service.

“NASA’s science satellites could also be lofted by Stratolaunch.”

“At some point this vehicle could loft a crew of say six people,” Griffin stated.

“This is an exciting day,” concluded Allen.

“Stratolaunch will keep America at the forefront of space exploration and give tomorrow’s children something to search for in the night sky and dream about. Work has already started on our project at the Mojave Spaceport.”

SpaceX Dragon cargo spaceship propels commercial and science payloads to orbit following air-launch from gigantic carrier aircraft. Credit: Stratolaunch Systems

Virgin Galactic Taps Test Flight Veteran As Pilot

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From a pool of 500 potential applicants, Virgin Galactic has found their man. The NewSpace firm chose from some of the greatest pilots the world has to offer to work to be a pilot for their company. U.S. Air Force test pilot Keith Colmer rose to the top of the list and was selected by Virgin Galactic to join the team that is working to allow private citizens a flight into space.

Virgin Galactic announced Colmer’s addition to the company’s space flight team on Oct. 26. He will join Virgin Galactic’s Pilot David Mackay as they work to get the company’s carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo and its spacecraft SpaceShipTwo into service. They will be joined by more pilots as the company works to begin operations in 2013.

Colmer brings 12 years of operational, developmental and experimental aircraft test flight experience plus more than 10 years of combined military experience in USAF spacecraft operations and flying. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic

“Keith brings the kind of tremendous multi-dimensional talent and skill set that we are looking for in our astronaut pilots,” said Virgin Galactic’s President and CEO George Whitesides. “But equally important to us are his impeccable character and his outstanding record of high caliber performance in highly demanding environments. He sets the bar very high for others to come.”

“This team in Mojave is second to none,” said Mackay about Scaled Composite’s test pilots. “Keith and I are indeed fortunate to have their expertise and body of work to build on as we enter the final phases of the test program and prepare to open space to all.”

Colmer is a veteran pilot, with 12 years worth of experience in testing experimental aircraft. He has over 5,000 hours logged in more than 90 different types of aircraft.

Virgin Galactic is preparing to launch private citizens into space, potentially as early as 2013. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg

Former NASA Space Shuttle Manager Mike Moses recently left NASA to work as Virgin Galactic’s Vice President of Operations. Virgin Galactic is working to begin powered test flights, and after that the company will try to begin commercial operations.

“I am extremely honored to have been the first astronaut pilot selected through competition to join the team,” said Colmer. “Virgin Galactic is truly revolutionizing the way we go to space and I am looking forward to being a part of that.”

Colmer has served as a combat pilot, flying an F-16 in two tours in Iraq with the Colorado Air National Guard. According to information provided in a Virgin Galactic press release he is the first Air National Guard pilot to ever be selected to attend the USAF Test Pilot School, at Edwards Air Force Base.

With the dedication of its spaceport located near Las Cruces, New Mexico; additions to its team such as former NASA Space Shuttle Program Manager Mike Moses and others, Virgin Galactic is working to have the needed infrastructure in place to begin flight operations within the next two years. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic/Jeffrey Vock

Colmer has a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautics and Astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He holds a Masters degree in Aerospace Engineering and a Masters degree in Telecommunications from the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is a graduate of the USAF Undergraduate Space Training program, the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program and USAF Test Pilot School, Class 02A.

Virgin Galactic recently dedicated its Space Port in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The company is part of the London-based Virgin Group which is owned by Sir Richard Branson. The company formed after Scaled Composites one the $10 million Ansari X-PRIZE back in 2004. The flights of WhiteKnightOne and SpaceShipOne paved the way for the development of the vehicles that Virgin Galactic is planning on utilizing to begin suborbital space flight operations. Tickets for flights on the commercial space plane are set to cost approximately $200,000.

Spaceport America Opens With ‘Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space’

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Do you want to buy a ticket to outer space? Fly into orbit for the most breathtaking views of Earth possible? Well, those dreams for many took a step closer to reality yesterday as the world’s first commercial spaceport officially opened with dedication ceremonies for the new home of Virgin Galactic, Spaceport America, in New Mexico. It’s the beginning of a whole new space age…

With about 800 people attending, the terminal building was officially named “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space” while its two spacecraft, WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo, flew overhead. The ceremonies were overseen by Virgin Galactic’s founder Sir Richard Branson. New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez and Congressman Steve Pearce were also in attendance. The ceremonies even included a performance, (on the side of the building!) by the dance troupe Project Bandaloop (see video below).

“Today is another history-making day for Virgin Galactic,” said Sir Richard Branson. “We are here with a group of incredible people who are helping us lead the way in creating one of the most important new industrial sectors of the 21st century. We’ve never wavered in our commitment to the monumental task of pioneering safe, affordable and clean access to space, or to demonstrate that we mean business at each step along the way.”

This event marks a major milestone in the history of commercial spaceflight; once only the domain of NASA and other government space agencies, the space age is now finally really coming into its own, opening up the way for more ordinary citizens to leave Earth, at least to low-Earth orbit for now. Could space hotels be far behind?

“For me, my children and our ever growing community of future astronauts, many of whom are with us today, standing in front of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space as it glimmers majestically under the New Mexican sun brings our space adventure so close we can almost taste it,” said Sir Richard.

Source: Virgin Galactic

NASA Strengthens Virgin Galactic Ties With New Contract

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NASA has, on a number of occasions tapped the NewSpace firm Virgin Galactic to help the space agency accomplish its objectives – recently, it has done so again. This new contract will see NASA science payloads take suborbital flights on the company’s SpaceShipTwo (SS2) spacecraft. This however is not the first time that NASA has entered into an arrangement with the emerging commercial space flight firm.

NASA first began working with Virgin Galactic in 2007, when it entered into a Memorandum of Understanding to explore possible collaborative efforts to develop various equipment required to conduct space flight operations (space suits, heat shields, and other space flight elements).

Under this arrangement NASA will have one scientific mission flown aboard SpaceShipTwo with options for two additional flights. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg

Earlier this year, NASA selected seven different firms that either had or were developing suborbital spacecraft – one of these was Virgin Galactic. The announcement that was made Thursday, Oct. 13 is actually the culmination of the Flight Opportunities Program, which was announced on Aug. 9 of this year and established to help NASA meet its technology and research development requirements.

The agreement to fly NASA payloads on SS2 was announced about a week after former NASA Shuttle Program Manager; Mike Moses stated he was leaving the space agency to work as Virgin Galactic’s vice president of operations. Moses will be in charge of all operations at Spaceport America, located near Las Cruces, New Mexico.

On these missions, not only will a carry a scientific payload but an engineer that will monitor the payload and operate the payload. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg

“I’ve known Mike for a long time, from his flight controller days which led to him becoming a flight director and then moving into the shuttle program,” said Kyle Herring, a NASA public affairs officer. “I think he would be a very valuable asset to any organization that he went to. Mike’s expertise will be very beneficial in not just mission operations but ground operations as well.”

The NASA contract with Virgin Galactic is for one flight with the space agency optioning two additional flights (for a potential of three flights total). If NASA options all three flights, the total contract would be worth an estimated $4.5 million. The announcement came just four days prior to the dedication ceremony for the spaceport’s new headquarters (the dedication was on Monday, Oct. 17).

NASA will flight at least one experiment package on SpaceShipTwo, with an option to fly potentially two more. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg

Each of these suborbital missions will have a trained engineer on board to handle the experiments.

Virgin Galactic is an arm of the London-based Virgin Group which is owned by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson. Virgin Galactic is working to provide tourists with suborbital flights into space that will allow these space passengers to briefly experience the micro-gravity environment. The flights will launch from a spaceport which is currently under construction near Las Cruces New Mexico. Tickets have been priced at about $200,000 each.

Former Space Shuttle Program Manager Mike Moses has joined Virgin Galactic as the company's vice president of operations. The company conducted a dedication ceremony of its new spaceport, located near Las Cruces, New Mexico on Monday, Oct. 17. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg