Virgin Galactic: More Delays, More Opportunities

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.


Posted in: NASA, NewSpace, Space Tourism

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