NASA’s Year Long Mission Gets Underway

Expedition 43 Launch 1

Launch of Expedition 43 / Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

It’s not a five year mission, and it certainly isn’t going anywhere “no-one has gone before,” but NASA’s longest manned space mission got underway on Friday with the liftoff of a Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft carrying veteran American astronaut Scott Kelly, and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka.

Kelly and Kornienko will spend the next year aboard the International Space Station in a study of what longer duration spaceflight (in zero-G) does to the human body. Kelly’s twin brother, retired astronaut Mark Kelly will serve as a sort of scientific control here on Earth, giving NASA medical researchers as base of comparison.

The one year mission is being presented as another step in the agency’s long term plans for the Red Planet. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden commented on the launch saying “Scott Kelly’s mission is critical to advancing the administration’s plan to send humans on a journey to Mars,”  leading to “new, detailed insights on the ways long-duration spaceflight affects the human body.”

How much useful information will be gained is debatable. With Mars transfer times averaging roughly six months each way, the standard duration of most ISS visits. The agency actually already has a wealth of knowledge regarding in what conditions astronauts could be expected to arrive at the Red Planet, presuming the presence of exercise equipment similar to that housed aboard the station. Radiation exposure is another matter however, one which cannot be tested in Low Earth Orbit.

For, Russia, including the Soviet era, this will actually mark the fifth year long mission, four such stays were conducted aboard the Mir space station.

What neither NASA, nor Russia knows though, is the effect of a cumulative Mars mission; six months out in zero-G, a lengthy surface stay at 30% Earth gravity followed by another six months at zero-G. Despite numerous proposals and a partially built Centrifuge Accommodations Module (CAM) which is now an outdoor exhibit in Japan, NASA has yet mount a serious effort at bypassing the problem entirely on a human scale by generating artificial gravity through rotation. A commercial centrifuge built by NewSpace company NanoRacks is aboard ISS, having been recently used to house a fruit fly experiment launched aboard the SpaceX CRS-5 mission.

In what may prove a more interesting aspect of the year long stay than any medical insights gained, yesterday’s launch and the open slot it created in the Soyuz manifest, paved the way for a resumption of space tourism with the flight of international soprano superstar Sarah Brightman to ISS later this year.


Swiss Space Systems Offers Customers Stock Opportunity


Own it!  : Image Credit / Swiss Space systems

Swiss Space Systems has found a rather unique way to offer customers of its parabolic flights the opportunity to become investors.

According to the company’s latest newsletter:

“We’re offering S3 ZeroG flights at an exceptional price for a flight campaign taking place in Switzerland in the second half of 2016. More than purchasing a simple parabolic flight experience , this offer provides a unique option for buyers to convert their flight for a voucher of 500 S3 shares, a month before an IPO of the company is launched later this year. The buyer either elects to take their ZeroG flight, or optionally, to be part of our adventure by entering into S3’s capital.

Before its Initial Public Offering, Swiss Space Systems wishes to give the opportunity to the general public to take part in this unique entrepreneurial space adventure. 5% of the equity will be opened, with 1% to be distributed to its employees. S3 will later on give the opportunity to the general public to enter its equity, up to 4%.

  • Firstly, 4000 “Gold” packs will be sold, giving access to a “Party Zone” ZeroG flight* at a reduced price for the 2nd semester of 2016.

-Secondly, 800 “Platinum” packs will be sold giving access to 2 ZeroG flights at a special price, a “Premium Zone” ZeroG flight* for the 2nd semester 2016, including the exclusive S3 Breitling watch, as well as a 2nd ZeroG flight in the “Party Zone” for the 2nd semester 2016 as well.

One month before the IPO, S3 will give the possibility to the purchasers of these packs to convert their Party Zone flight into 500 shares of the company transferred by Pascal Jaussi, founder of S3.”

For S3, the parabolic flight campaign using its converted Airbus A-300 is the first substantive step in its plan to introduce small satellite launch capacity by 2017.  The critical piece of hardware is the fully reusable SOAR spaceplane which will boost the expendable third stage to an altitude of 80 kilometers before returning to its airfield. Major assembly of the vehicle, which is to be powered by vintage Russian engines, is scheduled for 2016.


Do Hybrid Motors Have Future After All? The Paraffin Wax Rocket


Image Credit: IEEE / Emily Cooper

In the immediate aftermath of the Virgin Galactic disaster, SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid rocket motor came under suspicion as the most likely culprit. And, although subsequent updates by the NTSB team investigating the accident have instead centered on a problem with the craft’s feathering device and likely human error, many articles have continued the drumbeat of criticism over the selection of hybrid motors in the first place.

To a great extend, much of it is understandable, particularly considering VG’s prior experience and the fact that Sierra Nevada Corporation made a last minute change from hybrid to liquid propulsion engines for its Dream Chaser space plane. Hybrid rocket motors are a dead end technology, even if Virgin Galactic doesn’t know it yet.

Or are they?

An article in Spectrum, a product of IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, looks at a different type of hybrid; the wax or paraffin motor, where recent advances by a private company working with NASA Ames, The Space Propulsion Group are yielding performance increases which could bring this much abused technology within the range of liquid rocket engines.

From the article:

“Over the past eight years, our company has successfully conducted more than 40 test firings of a liquid-oxygen, paraffin-fueled hybrid motor that is 28 centimeters in diameter and produces 25,000 newtons of thrust. More recently, Space Propulsion Group has been testing a 56-cm diameter motor, one capable of 100,000 newtons of thrust—enough to lift more than 10 metric tons. The result of all our trials—which at one point included a motor exploding—is that our designs are now very reliable and produce very high specific impulse.”

The critical component is the selection of a hydrocarbon which is solid at room temperature, but rapidly converts to a low viscosity liquid when heated. Apparently, with the right tweaking, paraffin, or “hurricane wax” fits the role nicely, coming in at just the right molecular weight to allow ridiculously safe handling characteristics when being formed, transported, loaded, etc., but burning quickly enough when presented with an oxidizer to allow significant thrust levels to be achieved.

Although common to the point of being mundane, wax has some interesting characteristics, finding widespread use in thermostats, where the solid to liquid conversion process (and back again) has been keeping automobile engines running at the right temperature since the 1930’s. While it seems unlikely that the operational costs of the manufacturing and swapping hybrid motor cartridges could successfully compete with the economics of liquid fuels, it might turn out that for at least some applications, space tourism being one of the them,  the safety factor could hold great appeal.

The Show Goes On: XCOR and Fandango Team Up for Interstellar Promotion


Image Credit: Interstellar

In what has at times appeared to be a headlong rush to write off the future of space tourism as a response to the Virgin Galactic accident, a surprising (or perhaps not so) number of media sources have completely overlooked the fact that there are two other U.S. based companies, XCOR Aerospace and Blue Origin which are also in the process of developing vehicles intended to take passengers to the boundaries of space.

While Blue Origin remains characteristically silent regarding its vehicle, its plans, and of course its timeline, perhaps a suddenly more understandable approach given the criticism now being heaped on its very high profile competitor, it is XCOR Aerospace which now appears to be in the vanguard of an industry under fire.

XCOR, which recently announced that all the major components of its Lynx Mark I rocket plane were delivered and in the process of assembly, has long taken a middle of the road approach regarding publicity, (after all how could anyone actually exceed  Virgin Galactic in that department?) but the timing of its most recent announcement, a free “ticket to space” promotion with Fandango tied to the movie Interstellar, is as unfortunate as it was completely unpreventable.

The current promotion, which offers either a flight aboard the second generation Lynx MK II in 2017 and a cash prize of $50,000 or alternatively no flight and a check for $75,00 officially began at 10:00 AM PT on Friday, October 31st, only ten minutes before SpaceShipTwo dropped away from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.

While obviously a matter of sheer coincidence, the odd quirk and unfortunate timing is also a reminder that space tourism is much more than just Virgin Galactic, and quite literally, the show will go on, even as some question the “must.”

It is also important to note that XCOR, while still building a rocket powered space plane, is taking a different path from Virgin, as is Blue Origin, which by all accounts (and there aren’t many) is still focused on a vertical takeoff, vertical landing, all propulsive system which offers an alternate route to the same goal.

Coming Together Image Credit: XCOR Aerospace

Coming Together
Image Credit: XCOR Aerospace

XCOR released the above image as part of the Interstellar campaign.

One curious note regarding the promotion which is not so much about Interstellar as it is promotions in general.  A close reading of the fine print advises the potential winner that transportation and lodging related to the event will be in “economy” class. This was also the case with the Virgin Galactic Land Rover promotion, which is maybe even worse given the fact that it was promoting a luxury brand to begin with. Perhaps it is common in all such promotions even when there is no spacecraft involved.

But really? Have any of these people ridden in economy class lately? At least the winning entry could come with a pair of those anti-seat back wedges.


NTSB: Pilot Error a Major Factor in the Loss of SpaceShipTwo


Only two days in to an investigation which was expected to take up to a year,  the National Safety Transportation Board team looking in to Friday’s Virgin Galactic crash at the Mojave spaceport has made a surprising discovery, one which overturns almost all of the early assumptions about what led to the disaster. Speaking at press conference Sunday evening, the NTSB’s Christopher Hart revealed that “uncontrolled feathering” led to the mid air break-up of SpaceShipTwo. Ordinarily, initiating the feathering maneuver, which is used to increase drag and slow the vehicle as it begins its descent is a two step process which begins with unlocking the feather brake, followed by engaging a separate control which places the twin boom fins into the “feather” position.

Based on telemetry, which includes video feed from the cockpit, investigators can conclusively say that Scaled Composites co-pilot Michael Alsbury, who died in the crash, prematurely unlocked the feather brake.  Instead of occurring at Mach 1.4 as planned, the action took place at Mach 1.0. Seconds later, and without the second control being actively engaged, feathering fins extended, and the aircraft broke up. In short, pilot error was a major contributor to Friday’s accident.

Investigators have stressed that this discovery is not being labelled as the cause of the accident, and that the ongoing investigation will still require many months of work, with the team taking a hard look at training and the overall safety culture which has been called into question.  Nevertheless, the news appears to buttress Richard Branson’s Saturday allegations that some elements were reaching “irresponsible” conclusions in the absence of facts. While no less saddened by the outcome, the Virgin founder is likely taking some comfort in the fact that the NTSB team also determined that there was no burn-though of the nylon based hybrid rocket, and in fact the entire propulsion system appeared to have worked exactly as designed. It should be pointed out however, that even if those initial conclusions are validated, it does not necessarily change the basic facts around what has been a problematic development path for SpaceShipTwo, and in particular its hybrid motor. Questions will remain, but a path forward may be coming into view.

Although Virgin is still facing the loss of its first spaceplane, an ongoing investigation which will be asking tough questions and a likely multiyear setback to its operations, the sun which rises over the California desert today may offer a ray of encouragement which was nowhere to be found in the immediate aftermath of the accident.

Investigation of Virgin Galactic Accident Reveals Some Clues, Reaction Reveals Much About Human Nature


Two days after Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo broke up in the skies over the Mojave Desert, the National Transportation Safety Board “go team” is on site. B Roll video release of the accident site is beginning to reveal some aspects of the disaster which took the life of Scale Composites test pilot Michael Alsbury, badly injured surviving pilot Peter Siebold, and is derailing Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism ambitions, perhaps permanently.

Somewhat surprisingly, still photos appear to show the solid rocket motor in its casing, largely intact and lying partially buried in the desert, an observation which is leading speculation towards a more complex scenario than a mere “explosion” as early reports suggested.

Even as the facts are beginning to come together, the disaster has also served a tabula rasa for commentators to insert their own theories and prejudices. This is nearly always the case with any tragedy large or small, and a part of human nature. It also however, reveals the nature of the humans involved.

The Telegraph has a story detailing a number of warnings about the design of SpaceShipTwo and its hybrid motor which were allegedly ignored. If substantiated they are quite serious, but some can also be interpreted as coming from a group with a definite axe to grind.

As for Virgin Galactic’s flamboyant founder, Sir Richard Branson, who arrived on site Saturday, he appears to be a man who is starting  to have some serious doubts about VG’s future, stating at a press conference  that he “hopes” his company will fly again.

Branson went on to criticize the early critics saying,  “To be honest I find it slightly irresponsible that people who know nothing about what they are saying can be saying things before the NTSB makes their comments.”

XPRIZE Chairman and CEO Peter Diamandis, who holds a VG ticket himself, was steadfast, stating:

“Today, most importantly, my heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones, and the many at Virgin Galactic, Scaled Composites, and the Mojave Spaceport who this accident deeply affected. We are on the verge of opening the space frontier, one of the greatest endeavors of our species. Many Americans forget that 500 years ago thousands of European gave their lives to open the Americas, and 200 years ago, the early Americans risked their lives to open the West. This is what exploring is all about. We risk our lives for what we believe in. This is the American way — the explorer’s way. I for one, am proud to be a Virgin Galactic client. I believe in the company, and know without a doubt, that they will succeed, and I will fully trust them with my safety when my turn to fly materializes.”

A completely different point of view came in a piece entitled Space Tourism Isn’t Worth Dying For, which offers the opinion that one pilot was injured and one died “in the service of a millionaire boondoggle thrill-ride.”  What appears to be a deep seated resentment of the affluent.

“Virgin Galactic is building the world’s most expensive roller coaster, the aerospace version of Beluga caviar. It’s a thing for rich people to do: pay $250,000 to not feel the weight of the world” borders on obscuring what are some otherwise relevant observations.

For a much smaller group of space writers, matters got even more personal with the editor of the website Nasawatch, Keith Cowing, launching an unprovoked attack on Parabolicarc’s Doug Messier, calling him a “creep” and a “space ambulance chaser.”

Messier, who is based out of Mojave, has been closely following Virgin Galactic for years, and has broken a number of stories regarding the company, offering a valuable counterpoint to the steady stream of rosy publicity (some would say hype) coming from Virgin Galactic itself. In particular, this piece, which Doug posted prior to the fatal flight, offers a solid history of the challenges Virgin Galactic has faced on the long road to operations, highlighting what many besides Messier himself consider to be a series of design choices which were questionable at best. Eerily prescient, it is certainly worth a read.

As people come to grips with two major “commercial” space disasters within one tragic week. one thing seems sure. There is much more to be revealed, and if early reactions are any guide, the process may tell us as much about human nature and the perception of risk as it does about the technical challenges of reaching the high frontier.

Disaster in the Desert: Tragedy Strikes Virgin Galactic

disaster 3

Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground

In the second major disaster to strike commercial space in the same week, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo broke up in the air above the Mojave desert shortly after igniting its new plastic compound based hybrid motor in what would have been its first powered test flight.  According to multiple reports, the pilot ejected escaped, but the co-pilot, who did not, was killed. Our prayers and deepest sympathies go out to all involved.

Witnesses reported that the vehicle “exploded,” and ParabolicArc’s Doug Messier, who was on scene reported he could confirm the fatality.

Here is the FAA statement.

“Just after 10 a.m. PDT today, ground controllers at the Mojave Spaceport lost contact with SpaceShipTwo, an experimental space flight vehicle. The incident occurred over the Mojave Desert shortly after the space flight vehicle separated from WhiteKnightTwo, the vehicle that carried it aloft. Two crew members were on board SpaceShipTwo at the time of the incident. WhiteKnightTwo remained airborne after the incident. The FAA is investigating.”

Today’s test was actually performed under the auspices of SpaceShipTwo’s builder, Scaled Composites, which is wholly owned by aerospace giant Northrop Grumman. The hybrid motor which at this early point appears to have been the source of the disaster was manufactured by Scaled Composites as well, replacing the previous series of rubber compound based motors built by Sierra Nevada Corporation, which were used in the previous three powered test flights.  According to unofficial reports, the change was made due to combustion instabilities in the original motors. (In the lexicon of the industry, solid and hybrid fueled propulsion systems are referred to as “motors” whereas liquid fueled systems are “engines.”)

Beyond the immediate tragedy and loss of life, the implications for today’s disaster are broad and deep. The commercial industry was already reeling from Tuesday’s loss of the Orbital Sciences Antares booster on a NASA/ISS resupply mission, and the smoke had barely cleared from Wallops pad OA before some very predicable sources began to use the disaster to condemn the commerical space as a whole. Those voices will now become much louder.

The time to combat those claims will come soon enough, but today is not that day. For now it is enough to mourn the loss of life, the damage to a dream, and honor the dedication and courage of everyone involved who is seeking to expand the boundaries of the human experience.

Note: Story updated to reflect the fact that SS2 did not have ejection seats. That anyone survived such a breakup is simply amazing.

XCOR’s Path to Space

xcorcoming together 3

Coming together. Image Credit: XCOR Aerospace

Coming on the heels of the 10th anniversary lamentation/celebration of SpaceShipOne’s winning the Ansari XPRIZE, an event which saw more than a little criticism aimed at Virgin Galactic for its frequent delays with SpaceShipTwo, the other company racing to introduce a commercial suborbital spaceplane, XCOR, announced major progress in assembly of its Lynx Mark I vehicle.

XCOR Press Release:

Mojave, CA, October 07, 2014 – XCOR Aerospace® today announced marked progress on the path to commercial space flight with the integration of the cockpit to the fuselage on XCOR’s Lynx® spacecraft. With the fuselage, pressure cabin and strakes delivered, XCOR is bonding these structures together and integrating sub-assemblies, such as the landing gear, at its hangar in Mojave.

“The team at XCOR has been working a long time to reach this goal,” said XCOR CEO Jeff Greason. “We always knew there would be a day when we could see a spacecraft forming in our hangar. Today is that day. These pictures show our ongoing journey to make commercial space flight a reality.”

In addition to the progress noted above, Lynx’s rocket propulsion system continues to be tested on a first generation fuselage that is used to perform cold-flows and hot fires with XCOR’s proprietary rocket propellant piston pump technology.

“After 15 years of development, the excitement in the hangar is palpable,” said XCOR President Andrew Nelson. “Teams are working in parallel to finish Lynx. We are hiring shop staff and engineers to prepare for the final stretch leading up to test flights. I’m proud of what the team has accomplished this year.”

About Lynx:

The Lynx is a two-seat, piloted space transport vehicle that will take humans and payloads on a half-hour suborbital flight to 100 km (330,000 feet) and then return safely to a landing at the takeoff runway. It is the only fully reusable suborbital spacecraft in production.

End press release

As Innerspace noted yesterday, although Virgin Galactic consistently receives the lion’s share of press attention, much of it self-generated, it is the much quieter XCOR which may be on the better track.  A little more on that, and why space enthusiasts should take note. It is about much more than space tourism.

SpaceX ‘s Elon Musk and Virgin Galactic’s over the top flamboyant Richard Branson are both highly visible, outspoken leaders, and both bear the responsibility of running more than one major business at the same time. XCOR’s Jeff Greason is very different individual, more reserved but equally compelling when discussing his passion for the advancement of space exploration. Greason however, an experienced engineer who began his career at Intel, shares with Musk a hands on approach to the technology, and a clear vision for how to evolve it in order to pursue a long term business plan.

There are other similarities as well. Musk and SpaceX began with the smallish Falcon 1 while aiming for Mars. Greason and XCOR began with the EZ-Rocket Plane,  which could only fly for a few minutes, but did so 26 times, continued with the more powerful X-Racer which flew 40 times, and are now focused on prototyping routine suborbital operations with the initial Lynx Mark I which is rapidly coming together.

While the Lynx Mark I, which can only each 60 kilometers, will be used as a pathfinder vehicle, both for flight operations and for commercial service, it will quickly be supplanted by the more capable Mark II, which will be able to carry its pilot and single paying passenger (or experimental payload) all the way past the 100 km threshold and the established boundary of sub-orbital “space.” In this case, quickly means just that, less than a year. At the moment, XCOR, through its marketing arm XCOR Space Expeditions lists, with caveats, Q3/Q4 2015 for the Mark I, and 2016 for the Mark II on its website. A Mark III would come next, offering a external research space or an expendable smallsat launcher contained in a dorsal pod. Given the comparatively sober approach taken by the company, it seems that 2015 will in all probability see the first Lynx spaceplane streaking into the sky.

Lynx Cutaway  Credit: XCOR Aerospace

Lynx Cutaway
Credit: XCOR Aerospace

Why it matters. Compared to SpaceShipTwo which is using expendable hybrid motors which mush be changed out after each trip (the oxidizer tank and plumbing remain), the Lynx, powered by four kerosene and liquid oxygen rocket engines, is 100% re-usable. Equally important, although the thrust is very low, roughly 2,900 lbs. per engine, and the final velocity will be nowhere near that required to attain obit, the proprietary piston pump technology which provides the propellant flow, is scalable. Taken together with the fact that the XCOR plan of operations calls for multiple flights per day, literally a “gas and go” approach to first stage rocket flight, embodied in the diminutive spaceplane are the core elements of routine access to low Earth orbit, unimpeded by evolutionary dead ends such as the expendable hybrid motors on SS2, or the completely expendable solid/liquid combination being pursued by Paul Allen’s StratoLaunch.

Piston Pump Credit: XCOR Aerospace

Piston Pump
Credit: XCOR Aerospace

XCOR is starting at the other end of the fully reusable development pathway being pioneered with SpaceX by beginning with a rapidly re-usable suborbital vehicle while planning to evolve, whereas SpaceX is attempting to evolve the fully expendable Falcon 9 into a recoverable system which could eventually be made to perform “rapidly.”  Both have a long way to go, and for XCOR, the path is a little less clear because the Lynx, no matter how many “Marks” follow its name, is not intended as an approach to the much more elusive goal of being a Single Stage To Orbit Vehicle. Another stage, or two, must eventually follow, and there is every reason to believe that it will be air-launched. Greason does have plan, but for now it remains a secret.

XCOR is focused, as well it should be, on getting Lynx to the runway, and then flying it over and over, day after day. That nose to the grindstone approach for proving the viability of commercial spaceflight is in its own way just as significant as SpaceX’s attempt to recover and relaunch the Falcon 9 first stage.

Wherever these two approaches ultimately meet, “X” will mark the spot where the revolution really begins.


Looking Back, Looking Ahead and Getting the Business of “Rocket Science” Right


Still Working…Still Waiting. Image Credit: Virgin Galactic

Saturday, October 4th, 2014 was the ten year anniversary of the SpaceShipOne’s winning the Ansari X-Prize, a feat which built on its legacy of becoming the first privately funded, piloted “rocket” to pass the 62.5 mile high Karman line and go into suborbital space.

Ten years later, on the anniversary of its second trip into that ethereal arena, a journey which established its credentials as being reusable, and thus the starting point for a new era commercial “spaceflight ” a number of articles are understandably focusing on the fact that the revolution which seemed so close at hand that day has been, to say the least, rather slow to materialize.

From Time:  “Branson’s Virgin Galactic is the closest to delivering. His SpaceShipTwo is the direct descendant of the original Rutan-Allen ship, and he has signed up a long list of potential passengers who have all put down deposits toward their $200,000 fare. Last year, TIME attended something of a pep rally at the outfit’s Mojave Desert headquarters, during which hundreds of those passengers-on-standby gathered, mingled, ate high-end finger food and cheered speeches and videos hyping the ride to come. But a promised test flight of the ship was scrubbed due to high winds and that day’s much-repeated pledge that the spacecraft’s maiden space trip would occur before the end of the year has slipped—as it has so many times before—this time to what Branson describes only as “earlyish in the new year.” As recently as August, he said he’d be “bitterly disappointed” if he didn’t make his before-2015 deadline.”

Some things seem certain. If we have learned anything from the efforts of companies such as Virgin Galactic, XCOR and Blue Origin, all of which have yet to begin operations, it is that introducing a new system always takes longer (and costs more) than enthusiastic founders believe will be the case. Even SpaceX, which was formed in 2002, well before the X-Prize, was won, has almost invariably been well behind established timetables, and the resulting criticism eventually prompted the always garrulous Elon Musk to begin tempering his predictions with a healthy dose of qualifiers. Nevertheless, Elon Musk and his small group of engineers made a very sound technical and business decision in the earliest days of developing the Merlin engine, committing the company to a kerosene/liquid oxygen architecture which could evolve as needed. ULA and Blue Origin may have done the same with last month’s announcement of the BE-4, Liquefied Natural Gas engine project.

In the case of Virgin Galactic however, the first and best known of the two companies actively pursuing suborbital space tourism as their primary enterprise, (Blue Origin is so secretive regarding its plans it is difficult to characterize what they are actually doing) one has to wonder if the decision to base SpaceShipTwo’s architecture on hybrid rocket motors was a critical mistake which has cost it years, not months as the company would seem to suggest, of fruitless development effort. In other words, if Virgin had elected to develop a liquid fueled engine from outset, as XCOR has done, the story might be a very different one.

It has not been a good summer for hybrids, with VG announcing a switch to a plastic as opposed to a rubber compound, and Sierra Nevada Corporation, which would have supplied VG its motors, dropping hybrids entirely for its Dream Chaser spaceplane.  In the latter case, the relative last minute switch, and concerns about the hybrids it would have used, may have been a determining factor in SNC’s loss in the Commercial Crew program.

The argument could be made that the delays are not due to the fact that “it really is rocket science” which has become something of a reflexive answer, but in fact due to very poor business decisions about which specific “rocket science” to pursue in the first place. As the old Knight Templar advises Indiana Jones in selecting the holy grail, “you must choose, but choose carefully.”  If that is the case, then the near future may be quite a bit brighter for XCOR, which started with liquid engines and has stuck with them, than it is for Virgin Galactic. which is now committed to a second, and one hopes, better hybrid.



In the long run, XCOR and Virgin Galactic want to move on to orbital operations, which means even if the new hybrid motor, now supplied by Scaled Composites, is both docile and dependable, it is still not on what would appear to be the appropriate technological path. Tellingly, Virgin Galactic is developing a liquid fueled engine for its LauncherOne smallsat launch vehicle which will ride to altitude under the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.

The space tourism, or if you prefer, “spaceflight participant” market is more than one or two companies however, and even if Virgin Galactic has created some problems for nearly everyone by over hyping and under performing thus far, the demand  is not about to subside. Moreover, with the announcement of NASA’s Commercial Crew decision, temporarily issued a stop work order courtesy of the SNC protest, it is now being officially pursued from another direction as well.  Although the program is specifically geared towards meeting NASA’s needs, the agency has also been clear that it wants to see other destinations in LEO open up, and views Commercial Crew as a means to facilitate that goal.

At north of $20 million per seat for today’s expendable vehicles, as opposed to $250,000 for VG’s suborbital jaunts aboard the eventual VSS Enterprise, the market is certain to remain a very limited one,  but perhaps not for too much longer.  Based on its success with first stage recovery thus far, it not unrealistic to expect that SpaceX will have the capability to re-use the Falcon 9 first stage at nearly the same time Dragon V2 is ready to begin flying NASA astronauts to ISS.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that the two operations, astronaut taxi service and resuability will merge any time soon, but they are at least convergent. And while SpaceX has been very circumspect, and in fact almost silent on the subject of general space tourism, it is actively engaged in some sense, along with Boeing, in the contract with Bigelow Aerospace as a transportation provider.

Ten years after the X-Prize, we all know what hasn’t happened, but the good news is we have more than a few reasons to believe that ten years from now, the “revolution” in private spaceflight will be well underway, and perhaps already threatening to spread beyond low Earth orbit.

To some extent, it may bear a remarkable resemblance to a spacelaunch itself. It takes just over nine minutes for a Dragon spacecraft to go from sitting on top of the Falcon 9, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, to flying freely in LEO. Yet four and half minutes into the flight, it is far from halfway there in terms of reaching the velocity required to attain orbit. It is in the second half where everything comes together, and at the seasonally appropriate risk of mixing metaphors, the marching band has just left the field.

Virgin Galactic: More Delays, More Opportunities

SpaceShip2 Rockets Ahead

Image Credit Virgin Galactic

Confirming a schedule slip which comes as no surprise, Virgin Galactic is now estimating that the first passenger flight (with founder Richard Branson aboard) will not take place until February or March of 2015. 2015.  The comments from the flamboyant businessman and adventurer came during an appearance with David Letterman on The Late Show on Wednesday.

Experience suggests the schedule may slip a little further still. Virgin is currently in the process of a last minute switch in the fuel mixture for its hybrid rocket engine, and even though the company did recently perform an unpowered drop test of its all composite space plane, it has yet to conduct a single powered flight with the new engine. Five or six months is a very short time frame to go from zero to ready for operations with such a significant component.

Delays, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber aside, the future is still getting brighter for Virgin Galactic. On Monday, the company was one of four to win a three year contract (with two year extension) to serve as platform for suborbital or high altitude research as part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. The award carries a possible two year extension so surely……

There is an angle to this story which may affect the outcome of NASA’s Commercial Crew program as well. The motors Virgin Galactic had been planning to use, which burn nitrous oxide and rubber, were to be supplied by Sierra Nevada Corporation. SNC would have also used two smaller versions burning the same mixture for its Dream Chaser space plane.

Now however, after years of testing and planning based on the SNC motor, Virgin has switched to a plastic based motor which will instead be supplied by airframe builder Scaled Composites. For its part, after the purchase of a small engine manufacturer Orbitec, Sierra Nevada is modifying Dream Chaser to incorporate liquid fueled engines instead. While almost certainly a positive move in the long run (assuming there is one), it also suggests that Dream Chaser may not be far enough along to meet NASA’s short term needs.