One flight closer to space

Vir­gin Galac­tic con­ducts a suc­cess­ful test of its SpaceShipTwo over Mo­jave, inch­ing the firm to­ward its goal of tak­ing tourists on trips for $250,000 each

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Sa­man­tha Ma­sunaga

MO­JAVE — In a grace­ful test flight Thurs­day, Vir­gin Galac­tic’s SpaceShipTwo dropped from its car­rier air­craft and arced through the air.

Af­ter a few min­utes of flight, the glint­ing space plane emp­tied a 2,500 pound tank of wa­ter meant to sim­u­late the weight of a rocket en­gine. The re­sult left a curv­ing white trail across the desert sky.

It was the lat­est sign that Vir­gin Galac­tic, the space tourism ven­ture backed by bil­lion­aire Richard Bran­son, is re­bound­ing from a fa­tal 2014 midair test fail­ure, and inch­ing closer to its goal of fer­ry­ing tourists on sub­or­bital space flights for $250,000 a pop.

Com­pany ex­ec­u­tives em­pha­sized they still face a hand­ful of glide tests be­fore Vir­gin Galac­tic can re­sume rocket-pow­ered tests.

“There’s still work to go, but so far, what we found is the ve­hi­cle is dis­play­ing good han­dling qual­i­ties,” said George White­sides, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Vir­gin Galac­tic and Space­ship Co., the man­u­fac­tur­ing arm of the com­pany.

The space tourism mar­ket has started to heat up. The Jeff Be­zos­backed Blue Ori­gin has con­ducted a num­ber of tests on its New Shep­ard re­us­able launch ve­hi­cle, which will also hoist pay­ing tourists into sub­or­bital space.

And Elon Musk’s SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, an­nounced in Fe­bru­ary that the com­pany will take two pay­ing tourists around the moon in late 2018.

Bill Ostrove, aerospace and de­fense an­a­lyst for Fore­cast In­ter­na­tional, said Vir­gin Galac­tic’s flight tests put the com­pany in a “pretty good place.”

“They’re steadily mak­ing progress,” Ostrove said. “Ev­ery test is more com­plex than the last one.”

Namira Salim, who in 2006 was one of the ear­li­est cus­tomers to sign up as an as­tro­naut for a Vir­gin Galac­tic flight, said she is up­beat about the com­pany’s test sched­ule.

“I’m to­tally fine with the pace,” Salim said. “They might as well do it right and take the time.”

Af­ter un­veil­ing the new­est ver­sion of its space plane more than a year ago, Vir­gin Galac­tic has put it through a va­ri­ety of tests, start­ing with “cap­tive carry” flights in which the smaller plane re­mained mated to the WhiteKnightTwo air­craft for the en­tire du­ra­tion.

In De­cem­ber, the com­pany moved on to glide tests, as well as a test last month of SpaceShipTwo’s “feather” sys­tem, which helps the space plane safely reen­ter the at­mos­phere by fold­ing up its two tail booms.

That test was sig­nif­i­cant be­cause of

the role the feather sys­tem played in the 2014 dis­as­ter.

Af­ter Vir­gin Galac­tic’s first SpaceShipTwo broke apart in midair, killing one of two test pi­lots, the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board pointed to a pre­ma­ture de­ploy­ment of the sys­tem by the co-pi­lot.

The agency placed most of the blame for the ac­ci­dent on the space plane’s builder, Scaled Com­pos­ites, which is now owned by Northrop Grum­man Corp. The space plane’s de­sign should have guarded against hu­man er­ror, the safety board said.

The NTSB also said the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion should have noted that Scaled Com­pos­ites’ haz­ard anal­y­sis failed to ac­count for hu­man er­ror.

Since then, Vir­gin Galac­tic has moved plane-build­ing du­ties in-house. The sec­ond space plane, named VSS Unity, was built by Space­ship Co. Vir­gin Galac­tic said it de­vised a mech­a­nism to pre­vent the feather sys­tem from be­ing opened too early.

Thurs­day’s flight, which took off at 9:52 a.m. in Mo­jave, marks the fifth glide test of the new SpaceShipTwo and its ninth flight over­all.

The test be­gan with the liftoff of the larger car­rier air­craft, which totes the space plane be­low its belly. The car­rier looks like two planes fly­ing hand-in-hand. The car­rier flew to an al­ti­tude of 50,000 feet be­fore re­leas­ing the space plane to glide back to Earth on its own.

When op­er­a­tional, SpaceShipTwo will fire its rocket mo­tor and soar to an al­ti­tude of more than 62 miles above the Earth. There it will coast to of­fer pas­sen­gers sev­eral min­utes of weight­less­ness and great views be­fore com­ing back to Earth.

The VSS Unity’s nine­minute solo flight Thurs­day al­lowed the test team to col­lect data on how the space plane han­dles weight on its way down. The plane touched down on the run­way around 10:50 a.m. to ap­plause from a crowd of em­ploy­ees and their fam­i­lies.

The plane was then pulled by a ve­hi­cle to Vir­gin Galac­tic’s nearby fa­cil­ity, while the car­rier air­craft con­tin­ued to cir­cle above.

“Seems like ev­ery­thing went nom­i­nally,” said Todd Eric­son, Vir­gin Galac­tic’s vice pres­i­dent of safety and test­ing.

Last month’s test showed the feather sys­tem is smoother and op­er­ates bet­ter than be­fore, and that it met all de­sign ob­jec­tives, Eric­son said. He added that the mech­a­nism to pre­vent pre­ma­ture op­er­a­tion also worked “nom­i­nally.”

Vir­gin Galac­tic is man­u­fac­tur­ing its next two SpaceShipTwo space planes, the first of which should be com­pleted by the end of next year.

Th­ese new ver­sions will be lighter than VSS Unity, but com­pany ex­ec­u­tives said they didn’t ex­pect to see any other ma­jor changes.

CEO White­sides would not say when Vir­gin Galac­tic could be­gin com­mer­cial op­er­a­tions.

“I usu­ally say, ‘When we’re ready,’” he said. “We’re mak­ing good progress ... we’re not go­ing to rush it.”

‘There’s still work to go, but so far, what we found is the ve­hi­cle is dis­play­ing good han­dling qual­i­ties.’ — George White­sides, CEO of Vir­gin Galac­tic

Photographs by Oliver Ouyang Vir­gin Galac­tic

VIR­GIN GALAC­TIC’S SpaceShipTwo on its car­rier in Mo­jave. The flight test is a sign the firm is re­cov­er­ing from a fa­tal 2014 in­ci­dent.

THE SPACE plane glides Thurs­day and emp­ties a wa­ter tank that’s meant to sim­u­late the weight of a rocket en­gine.

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