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.

 

Range Rover, Virgin Galactic To Award “Tickets to Space”

Waiting 
Image Credit: Virgin Galactic

Land Rover, in participation with Virgin Galactic, announced yesterday the latest in a series of promotions which has seen KLM and Unilever hold contests to give away a  “ticket to space.”

The current contest, designed to promote the new Land Rover Discovery Sport, is divided along regional lines, with video submission promoting the spirit of adventure to be judged by an independent panel. Regional winners, each of whom will win a more Earth bound trip in any event, will then be judged again for the final contest, and can select three friends to go along for the ride.

You can enter here.

As Parabolic.arc points out, the provision of four winners for a six passenger cabin tends to support rumors that Virgin Galactic, which is in the process of a last minute switch in its hybrid rocket motors, may have decided to reduce the passenger capacity of its SpaceShipTwo space plane.

Whoever the lucky winners are, they need not get in a big hurry. A close reading of the contest rules states that their ticket will be honored at some point “within the first 1,000 flights.”  And then there is this, although the contest is designed to promote what most would consider a luxury car brand, Land Rover, your flights to adventure are still going to be in coach.

Will Soyuz Beat Orion Around the Moon?

ses launch 042 1

On June 3rd, the Moscow Times reported on a new development in Space Adventure’s plan to launch two tourists on a voyage around the Moon.  Having scored notable success as the first and only company to arrange tourist, or “space flight participant” trips to the International Space Station, Space Adventures has been promoting the lunar circumnavigation plan for some time, having announced in 2011 that it had secured one passenger (at the time rumored to be James Cameron) and was looking for a someone else to occupy the second seat, bringing along the additional $150 million to make it happen.

Apparently that may have happened.  Although neither person’s identity has been revealed, Vitaly Lopota, CEO of Energia, which is Russia’s largest (and quasi-governmental) aerospace company has confirmed that two passengers are seriously interested, and his company is working towards a flight in 2017 or 2018.

Under the scenario envisioned, the two tourists and a single Russian pilot would launch aboard a modified Soyuz featuring an improved heat shield. That craft would in turn dock with a keralox Block DM propulsion stage attached to an extra habitation module launched by a Proton (gulp).

In another interesting twist, according to a report in Spaceflightnow which is based on comments Space Adventures President Tom Shelley made at a Florida conference last week, the mission integration might take place in the vicinity of ISS, with the crew traveling initially traveling to the Station to await the launch and arrival of the transfer vessel. Although no-one is saying so, presumably the ISS visit would serve as a “fall back” provision if something prevented the combined Moon vessel from breaking Earth orbit.

While the story will no doubt continue to garner skepticism until a press conference is called and the names are announced, there are several reasons it may have merit.

In the first place, although the Soyuz may be regarded as a reliable but very dated LEO craft, a stripped down version of the venerable spaceship formed the basis for the Soviet Union’s partially successful Zond lunar program in the in 1960’s. Its flight record though, might give a moment’s pause.

Of the four unmanned Zond circumlunar flights which actually survived a perilous launch aboard the problematical Proton, and completed their journey around the Moon, the results were very mixed.

The first, Zond 5, made a high (20) G force landing in the Indian ocean,  but a pair of turtles which made the trip did survive.  The next mission, Zond 6, did not go as well, with a planned an atmospheric “skip entry,” the velocity shedding technique which Russia is likely to apply to future missions, marred by a cabin depressurization and a premature parachute deployment leading to a crash landing. Had it been piloted, no one would have survived.  Seven was the lucky number for Zond, with that flight resulting in a successful demonstration of the re-entry technique, and ending in a relatively soft landing on target in Kazakhstan. The final mission, Zond 8, made a ballistic reentry, also into the Indian Ocean.

Interestingly Zond capsules were also atop the ill-fated N-1 “Moon rocket,”  and were pulled to safety even as the giant boosters all failed catastrophically during first stage flight.

Even though the Zond program was canceled when the U.S.S.R. lost its race to the Moon with the U.S., the heritage, and the long successful track record of the Soyuz spacecraft  provides a basis for a Russia to get some measure of satisfaction by beating the U.S. back to Moon. Although no-one would call it a race, one should not overlook the fact that the only defined mission for the American Space Launch System calls for it to boost an Orion spacecraft on a similar circumlunar flight in 2021. It is not difficult to imagine that in the light of current tensions, Russia might be motivated to be the first to the finish line this time.

And, while the Soyuz certainly represents a minimalist approach to lunar flights, Russia has made no secret of the fact that it is focusing on the Moon as the “horizon goal” for its space program. In other words, Russia might be more inclined to invest the resources to modify Soyuz, and even conduct a test flight than would otherwise be the case. Even if the passengers who fund the trip are both American,  the pilot/commander  would still be Russian, with the flight being used to provide an early test of some systems intended for its next generation, lunar capable craft.

As pointed out in the 2011 Space Review article, Bad Moon Rising, a Russian circumlunar flight taking place prior to the American return to “deep space” would present a fascinating public relations challenge for NASA as it seeks to explain why it is that the nation is spending tens of billions of dollars to accomplish what two “tourists” achieved for $150 million each.

Of equal importance, it would present a serious counter example to those who argue that a massive booster is needed because dual launch orbital rendezvous is just too problematic.

Finally, one wonders if the spectacle of a modular lunar mission effectively supported by, and departing from the vicinity of ISS, might not cause a re-examination of the Station’s potential for performing similar functions in the future.

XCOR Receives Capital Investment

Cockpit, with Lox tank in background
Credit : XCOR

Following the delivery of its first flight capable, pressurized cockpit earlier this year, XCOR continues to make steady progress in assembling its two seat Lynx sub-orbital space plane. With fellow intended space tourism provider Virgin Galactic announcing a switch in fuels for the hybrid rocket motor powering SpaceShipTwo, a change which may further delay its introduction, could it be possible that XCOR beats its more flamboyant competitor to to sub-orbit?

Perhaps, but as the old saying goes “No Bucks, No Buck Rogers,” so it may come as a good sign for XCOR that more investments are on the way. This time, Ol’ Buck may speak with a Dutch accent.

XCOR Press Release

CFIUS Approval Clears XCOR Aerospace’s First Close of Series B Financing
XCOR Raises $14.2 Million of Investment Capital Led by Dutch Investors

27 May 2014, Mojave, CA – XCOR Aerospace announced today that the United States Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the US (CFIUS) has approved the Series B lead investment by Dutch investors. The first closing of XCOR’s new round of finance issued $14.2 million of Series B preferred shares. XCOR will use the funds to bring the XCOR® Lynx® suborbital spaceplane to market.

The Series B financing was led by Space Expedition Corporation (SXC) of The Netherlands. Michiel Mol and Mark Hoogendoorn of SXC will join the current five members on the XCOR Board of Directors. The first round also included many existing and new investors including: board member Esther Dyson, Pete Ricketts (co-owner of the Chicago Cubs), and a number of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and early-stage investors. A smaller second closing is scheduled over the summer.

The SXC investment in XCOR signals a strong commitment to the commercial space industry by the Dutch entity, which is also XCOR’s lead wet-lease customer and general sales agent. Michiel Mol said, “With this investment in XCOR, we’re closing ranks with our most strategic partner. We will take the next step together toward our first commercial spaceflight. I’m proud to become a part of this fantastically dedicated team of ‘future makers’ and game changers.”

Mark Hoogendoorn noted, “Investing in XCOR is much more than investing in innovative technology and a team of highly skilled engineers. Most of all, it’s investing in a long term vision we strongly believe in that will enable a new era of sustainable and regular space access that will positively impact all mankind.”

Jeff Greason, Founder and CEO of XCOR, said, “We are very pleased to have this first closing of the Series B and welcome Michiel and Mark to the Board. This investment will allow us to accelerate and run in parallel several final developments in the critical path to first flight.”

“This first closing of the Series B is a signal to the market that XCOR is moving ahead with its plans for commercial service and that we are nearer to that goal,” said Andrew Nelson, Chief Operating Officer of XCOR. “The Series B will remain open for a limited time as we complete discussions with a few more potential investors.”

Although SXC acquired a minority position without control provisions in XCOR, the company took the cautious route of submitting the investment to CFIUS for review prior to an official public announcement. CFIUS agreed that no control provisions exist and that the investment is not a so-called “covered transaction.”

Virgin Galactic Makes Hybrid Motor Switch

Waiting 
Image Credit: Virgin Galactic

Based on Virgin Galactic’s marketing arrangement with NBC, it’s a pretty good bet that as the company approaches its first flights, much of the breaking news will come from that source, and hopefully from Alan Boyle.

So, along those lines, we learned on Friday that VG is making a switch in the hybrid fuel mixture which will be used to power VSS Enterprise and its sister ships into sub orbital space.  It is discarding the rubber based compound in favor of one based on plastics instead, as described in this article by Boyle. Although VG’s official position is that the switch will not substantially add to the first date for the maiden passenger flight, prior history and common sense suggests it may slip from late this year into 2015.

The change is not entirely a surprise, given a long running series of reports coming out of Mojave that the previous, rubber based compound was subject to some combustion instabilities.

Here is a recent ground test using the new compound.

 

 

XCOR Receives Lynx Cockpit, Begins Integrating First Operational Vehicle

Cockpit, with Lox tank in background Credit : XCOR

Cockpit, with Lox tank in background
Credit : XCOR

Although Virgin Galactic has a tendency to draw the headlines, no doubt in part due to its very high profile founder, XCOR Aerospace is pressing equally hard to get its Lynx space plane into commercial service. The company announced a major step forward today with the delivery of the pressurized cockpit for its Lynx Mark I.

XCOR Press Release:

XCOR Aerospace Receives Lynx Mark I Cockpit
Vehicle Integration Commences

April 09 2014, Mojave, CA – XCOR Aerospace announced today that the XCOR® Lynx® Mark I cockpit has been delivered. AdamWorks engineers, along with XCOR engineers, performed several successful pressure tests before it was packed and shipped to XCOR .

The cockpit is the principle major subassembly XCOR needs to begin assembly of the Lynx suborbital spaceplane.

“The successful pressure testing of the Lynx cockpit and its delivery is a major milestone for us,” said XCOR Founder and CEO Jeff Greason. “This will enable us to accelerate toward integration, ground testing and first flight over the rest of this year.”

Andrew Nelson, Chief Operating Officer of XCOR added, “Our clients and partners are very happy to see this significant sign of progress. I could not be more happy with our designers, engineers and team who have worked so hard on this major accomplishment. We are that much closer to suborbital operations.”

XCOR Aerospace: XCOR Aerospace is based in Mojave, California. It is currently creating a Research and Development Center in Midland, Texas, and will be establishing an operational and manufacturing site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. XCOR builds safe, reliable and reusable rocket-powered vehicles, propulsion systems, advanced non-flammable composites and rocket piston pumps. XCOR works with aerospace prime contractors and government customers on major propulsion systems, while also building Lynx. Lynx is a piloted, two-seat, fully reusable liquid rocket-powered vehicle that takes off and lands horizontally. The Lynx family of vehicles serves three primary missions depending on their specific type including: research and scientific missions, private spaceflight and micro satellite launch (only on the Lynx Mark III). Lynx production models (designated Lynx Mark II) are designed to be robust, multi-mission (research/scientific or private spaceflight) commercial vehicles capable of flying to 100+ km in altitude, up to four times per day. Lynx vehicles are available to customers in the free world on a wet lease basis to start their own manned space flight program. Learn more at www.xcor.com.

Swiss Space Systems Announces World Tour Dates

Credit : Swiss Space Systems

Credit : Swiss Space Systems

Swiss Space Systems unveiled its worldwide Zero G flight schedule for 2015 in a March newsletter today. Lifting off from 24 different airfields and every continent except Antarctica, the company’s specially modified Airbus A-300 will span the globe, offering parabolic flights with passengers grouped into three different zones.

Beginning at under 2,000 Euros, the “Party Zone,” located at the rear of the aircraft will host up to 40 passengers per flight making it “the world’s most affordable ZeroG experience.”

The plane’s middle section, described as the “Premium Zone” will host up 24 passengers in a 10 meter long section, each of whom will get to keep their S3 flight suit and receive a Breitling S3 ZeroG timepiece.   Cost, which also includes “special activities such as playing with liquids and balloons” is 5,000 Euros.

Finally, there is the VIP room, located at the front of the plane and hosting up to 12 passengers at a time. This section is priced differently, “at a minimum cost of 50’000 Euros for the whole zone, with several options that can be discussed to offer a tailor-made experience.” Let your imagination go where it will, but the flight suit and the watch will also go home with the participants.  

Service kicks off January 10 in Japan and concludes November 29 in Puerto Rico. North American stops begin in Canada on August 29, going on to Colorado, California and winding up with nearly the entire month of October spent in Florida.

Winklevoss plus Bitcoins equals Zero G

And the Twins Credit: Virgin Galactic

And the Twins
Credit: Virgin Galactic

It has been a wild week in world of digital currency known as bitcoins, beginning with a high profile theft, and culminating with NewsWeeks’s claim that it has identified its enigmatic creator.

Somewhere in the middle comes a new piece of evidence that bitcoins may have a future as interplanetary currency. Virgin Galactic has received another celebrity booking, (in this case a double), but this one comes with a well written blog post by Tyler Winklevoss, explaining why he and his brother Cameron, who together famously accused Mark Zuckerberg of stealing the concept behind Facebook,  used bitcoins to pay for their sub-orbital spaceflight.

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NASA, Space Florida Begin Partnership for Shuttle Landing Strip

 

Shuttle Landing Facility Credit : BayNews9

Shuttle Landing Facility
Credit : BayNews9

 The week ended on a high note for the Kennedy Space Center with the announcement today that NASA and Space Florida are hammering out a partnership agreement which would see the State of Florida development agency assume responsibility for the Shuttle Landing Facility.The agreement which is still being worked out could see Space Florida ease the entry of a number of new ventures to the historic 15,000 foot long, 300 foot wide landing strip.  Among the possible users are XCOR Aerospace which has already expressed an interest in operating its Lynx suborbital space place from the site, as well as Virgin Galactic’s White Knight Two, carrying either its suborbital tourist space plane V.S.S. Enterprise, or Launcher One small satellite booster.  At the top of the size chart is Stratolaunch, which is already targeting a 2017 test launch out of KSC. 

Though none of the air-launched entries offers the exhilaration of Shuttle launch, the potential for a steady influx of tourists, researchers and commercial customers, combined with a flight tempo far in advance of anything seen at the Cape in years gone by could mean a mixed use future is suddenly looking quite a bit brighter for the Space Coast.

The Business of Flying with Celebrities

Credit : Virgin Galactic

Credit : Virgin Galactic

It has been an interesting couple of weeks for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and what appears to be the growing trend among high profile celebrities to sign up for flights aboard the V.S.S. Enterprise.   Two weeks ago  a Russian businessman  reportedly paid the equivalent of $1.5 million at a benefit auction for the right to share a flight with Leonardo DiCaprio.  While for many, hopefully most, the experience of  several moments of weightlessness would provide enough stimulus as it is, the idea of flying with a celebrity makes a certain amount of sense. It should prove to be a remarkably equalizing moment when everyone is out of their element, literally. 

Perhaps it will start a trend.  In some ways, it could  be the equivalent of fundraisers using  pro/am celebrity golf.  No matter how famous, influential or otherwise generally important an individual may be, there is a certain delicious moment of clarity when they step up to the tee and give it their best effort. Whether they just arrived  by helicopter to play their one hole, or are surrounded by a phalanx of body guards the rest of the day,  they are for a moment, just another person hoping they don’t whiff. 

And  so we come to the question.  If someone was willing to donate $1.3 million to fly with DiCaprio, how much could be raised by auctioning off the right not to have to fly with Joffrey Baratheon,  check that… Justin Bieber?

Credit : Tumblr

Credit : Tumblr