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Virgin Galactic accomplishes milestone test flight to the edge of space
December 13, 2018 Stephen Clark

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane fires toward space Thursday. Credit: & Trumbull Studios / Virgin Galactic

With two veteran test pilots at the controls, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane climbed to the edge of space for the first time Thursday in a major achievement for Richard Branson’s long-sought ambition to begin regular commercial hops with space tourists, and the first piloted flight by a U.S. vehicle above an altitude of 50 miles (80 kilometers) since the last space shuttle mission in 2011.

The successful test flight Thursday propelled Virgin Galactic — founded by Branson in 2004 — closer to commercial service after a 14-year effort slowed by development problems, and a fatal crash in 2014 that set the program back more than three years.

“Today, for the first time in history, a crewed spaceship, built to carry private passengers, reached space,” Branson said. “Today we completed our first revenue-generating flight and our pilots earned their commercial astronaut wings. Today, we have shown that Virgin Galactic really can open space to change the world for good.

“We will now push on with the remaining portion of our flight test program, which will see the rocket motor burn for longer and VSS Unity fly still faster and higher towards giving thousands of private astronauts an experience which provides a new, planetary perspective to our relationship with the Earth and the cosmos,” Branson continued. “This is a momentous day, and I could not be more proud of our teams who together have opened a new chapter of space exploration.”

The SpaceShipTwo vehicle, helmed by Virgin Galactic test pilots Mark “Forger” Stucky and Rick “C.J.” Sturckow, took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port around 10:10 a.m. EST (7:10 a.m. PST; 1510 GMT) Thursday under a specially-designed four-engine carrier jet.

The jet-powered mothership, named VMS Eve, took nearly an hour to climb to an altitude of 43,000 feet (about 13,100 meters) over the Mojave Desert, where it dropped the SpaceShipTwo vehicle, christened VSS Unity, at around 10:59 a.m. EST (7:59 a.m. PST; 1559 GMT). The rocket plane fell for a few seconds, then ignited its rear-mounted hybrid rocket motor for 60 seconds, propelling Stucky and Sturckow to a target altitude of more than 50 miles (80 kilometers).

Virgin Galactic live-tweeted Thursday’s flight, providing play-by-play updates as the suborbital spaceship rocketed through the rarefied upper atmosphere, then soared into the nearly airless environment of space. The company did not provide a live webcast of Thursday’s test flight.

VSS Unity reached a maximum altitude of 271,268 feet, or 82.7 kilometers, and a top speed of Mach 2.9 — nearly three times the speed of sound, according to Virgin Galactic.

A view from the cockpit of VSS Unity on Thursday’s flight, showing part of Southern California’s Pacific coastline. Credit: Virgin Galactic

In a press release Tuesday, Virgin Galactic — founded by billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson — said the company was entering a new phase of testing on SpaceShipTwo, an upsized commercial version of the SpaceShipOne rocket plane that won the Ansari X Prize in 2004, becoming the first privately-funded spacecraft to carry a human to space.

SpaceShipOne flew to an altitude of more than 62 miles (100 kilometers) on three occasions, first in June 2004, then on back-to-back quick-turnaround flights on Sept. 29 and Oct. 4, 2004.

“During this phase of the flight program we will be expanding the envelope for altitude, air speed, loads, and thermal heating,” Virgin Galactic said in a statement announcing plans for Thursday’s SpaceShipTwo test flight. “We also plan to burn the rocket motor for durations which will see our pilots and spaceship reach a space altitude for the first time.”

The reusable SpaceShipTwo rocket plane has a length of around 60 feet (18 meters), and a wingspan of 27 feet (8 meters). Once the rocket-powered portion of the flight was completed, and after a few minutes of weightlessness, Stucky and Sturckow steered the craft for a glide back to a runway landing at Mojave Air and Space Port, where VSS Unity touched down around 11:14 a.m. EST (8:14 a.m. PST; 1614 GMT).

“Many of you will know how important the dream of space travel is to me personally,” Branson said in remarks on the flight line at Mojave. “Ever since I watched the moon landings as a child, I have looked up to the skies with wonder. We started Virgin nearly 50 years ago dreaming big and loving a challenge. Today, as I stood among a truly remarkable group of people with our eyes on the stars, we saw our biggest dream and our toughest challenge to date fulfilled. It was an indescribable feeling: joy, relief, exhilaration and anticipation for what is yet to come.”

Stucky is a former U.S. Marine Corps and NASA test pilot, with more than 9,000 hours of flying time on a variety of aircraft, including the F-4, F-16 and F/A-18 fighter planes, along with a variant of the U-2 spy plane. Sturckow is a former NASA astronaut and a retired Marine Corps test pilot who flew on four space shuttle missions, and commanded two shuttle flights to assemble the International Space Station.

VSS Unity is the second SpaceShipTwo vehicle to be built, following the loss of the VSS Enterprise rocket plane in a fatal crash in 2014 that killed Michael Alsbury, the craft’s co-pilot. Lead pilot Peter Siebold parachuted back to the ground after a harrowing fall from the stratosphere when VSS Enterprise lost control and broke apart moments after igniting its rocket motor on an atmospheric test flight.

Engineers blamed pilot error for the accident, which occurred after Alsbury prematurely unlocked SpaceShipTwo’s feathering system, twin tail booms that are used to re-orient the rocket plane and slow it down for descent back into the dense, lower layers of the atmosphere. While the pilots did not command the feathering system to engage, the air flow at the ship’s altitude forced the booms to rotate toward their re-entry positions, leading to the craft’s disintegration at an altitude of more than 50,000 feet.

The new SpaceShipTwo models, beginning with VSS Unity, have an added safety feature to prevent pilots from unlocking the tail fins too early.

Virgin Galactic test pilot Mark “Forger” Stucky walks out of the hangar at Mojave Air and Space Port ahead of Thursday’s flight. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic, through it subsidiary The Spaceship Company, took over development and construction of subsequent SpaceShipTwo vehicles from Scaled Composites after the crash. VSS Unity made its first captive carry test flight underneath the VMS Eve mothership in 2016, followed by a series of unpowered glide flights and three rocket-powered tests beginning in April, ahead of Thursday’s trip to the edge of space.

Once the test flight program is completed, Virgin Galactic plans to relocate operational SpaceShipTwo flights to Spaceport America facility in New Mexico. The SpaceShip company is building additional SpaceShipTwo vehicles to allow for a higher flight rate after commercial service begins. Virgin Galactic has not announced a timetable for the first flight with paying passengers, or when Branson himself plans to climb aboard VSS Unity for a spaceflight.

Here is a list of the VSS Unity’s powered test flights to date:

  April 5: Apogee of 84,271 feet (25.7 kilometers); Top speed of Mach 1.87
  May 29: Apogee of 114,500 feet (34.3 kilometers); Top speed of Mach 1.9
  July 26: Apogee of 170,800 feet (52 kilometers); Top speed of Mach 2.47
  Dec. 13: Apogee of 271,268 feet (82.7 kilometers); Top speed of Mach 2.9

SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry six passengers, along with two pilots, close to the boundary of space. Commercial flights of the vehicle are expected to fly to an altitude of at least 50 miles (80 kilometers). The U.S. Air Force and NASA awarded astronaut wings to pilots of the X-15 rocket plane who traveled to that altitude, but the Kármán line — the internationally-recognized boundary of space — lies at the 62-mile (100-kilometer) mark.

Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity rocket plane glides to a landing at Mojave Air and Space Port to conclude Thursday’s test flight. Credit: Gene Blevins/LA Daily News/SCNG

But there has been a recent push to redefine the internationally-recognized boundary of space to the lower 80-kilometer mark, and the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the world air sports governing body, announced Nov. 30 that it will reconsider the location of the boundary, which is useful for keeping scorecards and determining who and what vehicles have flown in space.

“In the last few years there have been many scientific and technical discussions around this demarcation line for the ‘edge of space’ and variance around this as a boundary condition for recognition of ‘astronaut’ status,” the FAI said in a statement.

“Recently published analyses present a compelling scientific case for reduction in this altitude from 100 kilometers to 80 kilometers,” the statement continued. “These analyses combine data/modeling from a number of differing perspectives (latitudinal variations during solar cycles, theoretical lift coefficients for different size/configuration satellites ranging from cubesats to the International Space Station, perigee/apogee elliptical analysis of actual satellite orbital lifetimes, etc.) to a level that has never been done before in relation to this issue.”

The Kármán line is named for Theodore von Kármán, a pioneer in theoretical aerodynamics who co-founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The recent analyses of the boundary of space “also provide an accurate overview of some of the historical arguments and inadvertent misrepresentations of Kármán’s actual analyses and conclusions from over half a century ago,” the FAI statement continued.

The air sports governing body said it would organize a workshop with the International Astronautical Federation in 2019 to “fully explore this issue with input and participation from the astrodynamics and astronautical community.”

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astropyhsics who tracks rocket launches, is a proponent of changing the internationally-recognized threshold of space to the 80-kilometer altitude. McDowell tweeted after Thursday’s SpaceShipTwo flight that he plans to include the rocket plane’s first mission to space on his widely-referenced list of human spaceflights.

“Stucky is the 568th human to fly above 80 km,” he tweeted, a list that includes professional astronauts and pilots of the X-15 rocket plane, which flew above the 80-kilometer mark in the 1960s. The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to award Stucky and Sturckow commercial astronaut wings after Thursday’s flight, joining SpaceShipOne pilots Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie as the only pilots to achieve that distinction.

Sturckow already flew above the 80-kilometer altitude on his four space shuttle missions.

Virgin Galactic test pilot Rick “C.J.” Sturckow prepares for Thursday’s flight. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Four NASA-supported science experiments rode aboard SpaceShipTwo on Thursday, making it Virgin Galactic’s first revenue-generating flight.

“The anticipated addition of SpaceShipTwo to a growing list of commercial vehicles supporting suborbital research is exciting,” said Ryan Dibley, Flight Opportunities campaign manager at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California. “Inexpensive access to suborbital space greatly benefits the technology research and broader spaceflight communities.”

The experiments flown Thursday included investigations studying the behavior of dust particles on low-gravity planetary surfaces and the response of plant tissue to microgravity. NASA also flew a demo payload to test fluid flow control technologies that could be used on thermal control and life support systems on future spacecraft, and a vibration isolation mounting interface designed to reduce disturbances during launch, re-entry and landing.

Virgin Galactic is competing with Blue Origin, founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, in the suborbital space tourism and research market. While Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle uses an airborne release to fire into space and lands on a runway under manual pilot control, Blue Origin’s fully-automated New Shepard rocket and crew capsule takes off vertically from a launch pad, followed by a propulsive landing of the booster and a parachute-assisted return of the passenger-carrying module.

Blue Origin has accomplished nine New Shepard flights since 2015 — all without passengers — including two in-flight tests of the rocket’s abort system, which could be activated to rapidly push the crew capsule away from a failing booster. The highest altitude achieved by a New Shepard flight to date is nearly 390,000 feet — almost 119 kilometers — thanks to an extra burst of energy provided by the capsule’s abort rocket during an escape test in July.

Following a standard mission profile, the New Shepard has reached a maximum height of around 351,000 feet, or 107 kilometers.

Several hundred would-be space tourists have paid deposits on $250,000 tickets to ride Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. Blue Origin has not yet started selling tickets for New Shepard.

While Thursday’s flight was the first time a piloted U.S. vehicle has reached the 80-kilometer mark since the last space shuttle mission in July 2011, work continues in preparation for the first flight of an orbital-class U.S. crewed spacecraft. SpaceX and Boeing, each working under multibillion-dollar contracts with NASA, are developing human-rated capsules that could be ready to carry astronauts to the International Space Station next year.

Source: Virgin Galactic accomplishes milestone test flight to the edge of space

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Virgin Galactic pilots join an exclusive club with FAA astronaut wings
by Jeff Foust — February 10, 2019 [SpaceNews]

Secretary of Transportation pins FAA astronaut wings on Virgin Galactic pilot Frederick “CJ” Sturckow during a Feb. 7 ceremony in Washington as Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson looks on. Credit: FAA

WASHINGTON — The two pilots who flew SpaceShipTwo to the edge of space in December received commercial astronaut wings last week, joining an elite group that won’t necessarily become much larger even with the anticipated growth of commercial spaceflight.

In a Feb. 7 ceremony at the headquarters of the Department of Transportation here, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao formally awarded commercial astronaut wings to Mark “Forger” Stucky and Frederick “CJ” Sturckow, the Virgin Galactic plots who flew the SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane to an altitude of nearly 83 kilometers Dec. 13.

“Receiving commercial astronaut wings is an honor for me as it is acknowledgment of a personal achievement,” Stuck said in a company statement, thanking the employees of Virgin Galactic and its subsidiary The Spaceship Company, as well as Scaled Composites, which designed the vehicle. “And these wings are really dedicated to them.”

The Federal Aviation Administration, like the U.S. Air Force and NASA, awards astronaut wings to astronauts who fly above an altitude of 50 miles, or approximately 80 kilometers. This is below the 100-kilometer altitude of the Karman Line, which is commonly used as a standard, although not official, boundary of space. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the world air sports federation that maintains records for both aviation and spaceflight, said in November that it planned to reconsider the altitude of the Karman Line, suggesting it might be moved down to 80 kilometers.

Stucky and Sturckow are only the third and four individuals to receive FAA astronaut wings. The agency announced plans to award wings in 2004 as Scaled Composites was testing its SpaceShipOne vehicle. Mike Melvill received the first wings in June 2004 after the first flight of SpaceShipOne beyond 80 kilometers, while Brian Binnie received wings for that vehicle’s final powered flight in October 2004.

In remarks at the event, Chao hailed the flight that earned Stucky and Sturckow their wings as part of a “rocket renaissance” in commercial spaceflight. “Today we award the first of what I hope will be many more commercial astronaut wings,” she said.

However, there may only be a handful of such wings awarded in the near future. The FAA plans to give wings only to those who fly as crewmembers on FAA-licensed launches that go above 50 miles. Crewmembers have to meet specific requirements laid out in federal regulations, including holding an FAA second-class airman medical certificate and meeting specific training requirements in order to safely operate the vehicle. Spaceflight participants, those who fly on the vehicle but have no role operating the vehicle, will not be eligible for wings.

Those requirements will strictly limit the number of additional commercial astronaut wings awarded in the near future. Several other Virgin Galactic pilots, including chief pilot Dave Mackay, are expected to fly SpaceShipTwo in upcoming test flights and later commercial service, and thus will be eligible for wings.

The situation is different for Blue Origin, the other company actively developing a crewed suborbital vehicle. Its New Shepard vehicle is remotely piloted, and has yet to carry people on its 10 test flights to date. The company plans to start flying people on New Shepard later this year, initially with company employees as the flight test program continues. It’s not clear of these people will be eligible for FAA astronaut wings, though, since they will not be piloting the vehicle.

Boeing and SpaceX are developing crewed orbital vehicles, CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon, for NASA’s commercial crew program. However, initial flights of the vehicle will carry astronauts for NASA and other government agencies, even though operational missions will be licensed by the FAA.

If the astronauts on commercial crew missions are deemed eligible for FAA astronaut wings, in addition to NASA astronaut wings, they will not be the first to receive both sets of wings. Sturckow is a former NASA astronaut who flew on four shuttle missions prior to joining Virgin Galactic.


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SpaceShipTwo flies to the edge of space again
by Jeff Foust — February 22, 2019, Updated 4:30 p.m. Eastern with post-flight comments. [SpaceNews]

SpaceShipTwo, with its tail booms raised in the feathered position, near the peak altitude of its Feb. 25 suborbital spaceflight. Credit: Virgin Galactic

WASHINGTON — SpaceShipTwo successfully flew to the edge of space for the second time Feb. 22, carrying three people for the first time as the company moved closer to beginning commercial operations of the suborbital spaceplane.

VSS Unity, as the second SpaceShipTwo vehicle is named, was released from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft at 11:53 a.m. Eastern, about 45 minutes after taking off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. It fired its hybrid rocket engine for roughly one minute, flying to an altitude of 89.9 kilometers and top speed of Mach 3 before gliding back to a runway landing in Mojave at 12:08 p.m. Eastern.

The flight was the first for SpaceShipTwo since the Dec. 13 flight that was the first to pass the 50-mile (80.5-kilometer) altitude above which U.S. government agencies award astronaut wings. The company considers that the boundary of space even though it is below the 100-kilometer Karman Line used by other organizations.

At the controls of SpaceShipTwo were David Mackay, Virgin Galactic’s chief test pilot, and Mike “Sooch” Masucci, the company’s lead trainer pilot. This flight was the first time that either pilot had been to space.

For the first time in any flight in the SpaceShipTwo test program, the vehicle carried a third person: Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor. “She will provide human validation for the data we collect, including aspects of the customer cabin and spaceflight environment from the perspective of people in the back,” the company said in a tweet. The company didn’t disclose she was on the flight until after takeoff.

“Beth, Sooch and I just enjoyed a pretty amazing flight which was beyond anything any of us has ever experienced,” Mackay said in a post-flight statement. “It was thrilling yet smooth and nicely controlled throughout with a view at the top, of the Earth from space, which exceeded all our expectations.”

The vehicle carried four payloads from NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, which provides suborbital spaceflight access for science and technology demonstration payloads. Three of the four payloads also flew on SpaceShipTwo’s previous flight in December, the first time the vehicle carried experiments for the Flight Opportunities program.

With the experiments and the presence of a third person, Virgin Galactic said SpaceShipTwo was “at close to approximate commercial weight” on this flight. Part of the flight was also shifting the center of gravity of the vehicle to expand its operating envelope in preparation for commercial flights.

“This represents those first steps into what is the next hardest thing about our test program, which is the repeatability of it,” Mike Moses, president of Virgin Galactic and husband of Beth Moses, said prior to a planned Feb. 20 flight that was scrubbed because of high crosswinds. “We’ve tested it out, we’ve banged the tires a little bit to see what she can do, now we got to go make that box a little bigger so that it flies that way every time.”

Neither Mike Moses nor George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, would say how many more test flights the company plans before beginning commercial service. “We’re still in the heart of the test program,” Moses said, with the number of flights dependent on how long it takes to meet all of the requirements of the overall program.

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, said after the December flight that as few as three more flights would be needed before operations shift to Spaceport America in New Mexico. He subsequently said he anticipates being on the first commercial flight of the vehicle this summer, perhaps around the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission in July.

Debra Werner contributed to this article from Mojave, California.


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Virgin Galactic stages second piloted spaceflight
February 22, 2019 William Harwood [Spaceflight Now]

Virgin Galactic chief pilot Dave Mackay and co-pilot Michael “Sooch” Masucci at the controls of SpaceShipTwo during Friday’s test flight. Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor, Beth Moses, accompanied the pilots on the flight to the edge of space. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Two test pilots and their instructor flew Virgin Galactic’s winged spaceplane out of the discernible atmosphere Friday for the second time in nine weeks, a successful sub-orbital flight that moves Richard Branson’s company one step closer to its goal of launching paying passengers and payloads on brief forays into the weightlessness of space.

Running two days late because of high winds, Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo rocketplane, also known as VSS Unity, was carried aloft from the Mojave Air & Space Port north of Los Angeles by a twin-fuselage carrier jet known as WhiteKnightTwo.

After the air and spacecraft were off the ground, Virgin Galactic revealed that chief pilot Dave Mackay and co-pilot Mike “Sooch” Masucci were joined by Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor.

A few minutes later, around 11:50 a.m. EST (GMT-5), SpaceShipTwo was released from the carrier jet and a few moments later, Mackay and Masucci ignited the spacecraft’s hybrid rocket motor to begin a steep near-vertical climb out of the thick lower atmosphere.

It was the fifth supersonic flight of the futuristic-looking spaceplane and the 16th overall since a catastrophic 2014 in-flight breakup that destroyed an earlier version of the spacecraft and killed one of its two pilots. Friday’s flight was the company’s second featuring a long-duration rocket firing.

SpaceShipTwo fires its rocket motor during Friday’s test flight. Credit: Virgin Galactic / / Trumbull Studios

Branson, who was not on site for the test, said earlier he hopes testing will be complete in time for him to fly into space himself on July 20, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. But he said meeting an arbitrary target will not drive the test schedule and that commercial operations will not begin until all aspects of testing are complete.

“Having Beth fly in the cabin today, starting to ensure that our customer journey is as flawless as the spaceship itself, brings a huge sense of anticipation and excitement to all of us here who are looking forward to experiencing space for ourselves,” Branson said in a statement. “The next few months promise to be the most thrilling yet.”

Friday’s flight appeared to go off without a hitch as the pilots guided the vehicle out of the discernible atmosphere. The rocket motor shut down normally about a minute after ignition and the spacecraft coasted upward at a Virgin record 3.04 times the speed of sound to an altitude of 55.87 miles, or 295,007 feet.

For comparison, NASA pilot Joe Walker flew the air-launched X-15 rocketplane to an altitude of 67.1 miles on Aug. 22, 1963, the highest point ever achieved by the legendary aircraft, 17 miles above the 50-mile altitude the Air Force considers the “boundary” of space.

SpaceShipTwo made its first trip into space Dec. 13, reaching an altitude of 51.4 miles. The two pilots, Mark Stucky and C.J. Sturckow, a former space shuttle commander, were awarded commercial astronaut wings by the Federal Aviation Administration and their rocket motor was put on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

Mackay and Masucci flew a similar flight profile Friday, but SpaceShipTwo was rigged more like it will be or commercial flights and the motor fired slightly longer, pushing the vehicle to a higher altitude. And they had a passenger of sorts in Moses.

As the spacecraft arced over at the top of its trajectory, the crew experienced about five minutes of weightlessness as they enjoyed a view of Earth’s curved horizon and the deep black of space. Moses had time to unstrap and float about the cabin.

“Beth floated free to complete a number of cabin evaluation test points,” Virgin said in a post-flight statement. “The human validation of data previously collected via sensors, and the live testing of other physical elements of the cabin interior, are fundamental to the provision of a safe but enjoyable customer experience.”

Before plunging back to Earth, the pilots raised the vehicle’s twin tail booms to an angle of 60 degrees, a maneuver known as “feathering,” that increases atmospheric drag and eases aerodynamic stress.

SpaceShipTwo took off with its carrier airplane from Mojave Air and Space Port, California. Credit: Virgin Galactic

“Beth, Sooch and I just enjoyed a pretty amazing flight which was beyond anything any of us has ever experienced,” Mackay said in a statement. “It was thrilling yet smooth and nicely controlled throughout with a view at the top, of the Earth from space, which exceeded all our expectations.

“For the three of us today this was the fulfillment of lifelong ambitions, but paradoxically is also just the beginning of an adventure which we can’t wait to share with thousands of others.”

The feather concept was the brainchild of legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan. With financing from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Rutan’s company at the time, Scaled Composites, carried out the first privately funded sub-orbital spaceflight in 2004 to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

Branson then arranged to use a scaled-up version of the design and founded Virgin Galactic, which eventually took over development and commercial flight operations.

During Friday’s flight, the feathering procedure worked normally and after rotating the tail booms back to their normal position, Mackay and Masucci flew a normal gliding approach to a runway landing back at the Mojave Air & Space Port.

“The team’s overriding priority is always to bring crew and spaceship home safely,” Virgin said in a pre-flight statement. “Whether we complete all our objectives during the next flight or not, we remain committed to completing the final stages of flight test as quickly, but more importantly as safely, as possible.”


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Virgin Galactic hopes to launch tourist flights to space by end of 2019
By Washington bureau chief Zoe Daniel, Posted Feb. 25, 2019 [Australian Broadcasting Corporation]

Virgin Galactic VSS Unity in space, December 2018 PHOTO: Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity in space in December 2018. (Supplied: Virgin Galactic)

Growing up in Perth, Enrico Palermo was always looking to the stars.

Now, as president of The Spaceship Company, he is getting ready to send tourists in that direction.

"I was passionate about maths and science at a very young age," Mr Palermo told 7.30.

"During my teens I saw the shuttle program and thought space was fun."

That now sees him and his team building and testing the aircraft being used by Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic as it prepares to send tourists to space.

Mr Palermo is one of a team living and working in California's Mojave Desert, where the specially built spacecraft is being put through its paces.

'This is regular routine access to space'

PHOTO: Enrico Palermo's Spaceship Company is building and testing Virgin Galactic's fleet of spaceships. (ABC News: Zoe Daniel )

After a delay due to strong winds earlier in the week, on Friday Virgin Galactic's spaceship reached the "edge of space" for the second time in three months.

Mr Palermo said that reflected the gradual shift from test flights to scheduled services.

"This is a regular routine access to space. It's not just a one-off spaceflight," he said.

The reusable spacecraft, named the SpaceShipTwo, is designed to carry six passengers on a suborbital flight, reaching an altitude of 100 kilometres above Earth.

With a wingspan of 8 metres, the ship can change shape at its peak altitude to allow for re-entry into the atmosphere.

According to the company, the cabin is designed to "optimise the out-of-seat zero gravity experience for our astronauts".

More than 600 people have booked tickets for civilian flights.

'The motor shuts off … and instant weightlessness'

PHOTO: SpaceShipTwo takes off from the Mojave Desert on Friday. (Supplied: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic has spent 14 years building and testing its ships for public space travel. The company initially planned to take tourists into space by 2007.

Five years ago a fatal crash was put down to pilot error.

Since then pilots like Mark "Forger" Stucky have continued testing, gradually confirming the ideal speed, weight, trajectory and capacity of the aircraft to handle changes in conditions.

"It's just that sense of pure acceleration; that pure push in the back, that pushing you forward," Mr Stucky said.

"You see there is curvature, skies get a lot darker, the sky is black.

"And then not much longer after that, the motor shuts off and instant weightlessness."

He is looking forward to taking tourists up.

"I think it will be a great experience," he said.

"I look forward to seeing that how they react."

Space tourism could become a reality as soon as this year

PHOTO: SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry six passengers on a suborbital flight. (ABC News: Zoe Daniel )

On Friday, the spaceship reached its highest speed and altitude to date, hitting 89,918 metres.

Chief pilot Dave Mackay, a proud Scotsman, led the crew out to strains from a kilted bagpiper.

"Three people, Mach 3, 300,000 feet. Second flight of SpaceShipTwo. First Scotsman in space," he said. "It's a big flight."

Virgin Galactic is just one of several billionaire-backed companies testing various kinds of spaceships.

Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin are also in the race.

Mr Branson said he expected to be taking tourists to space by the end of 2019.

"This year is the year the 50th year of the Moon landing," he told 7.30.

"So it is going to be extraordinarily exciting to see people going into space. I hope to be able to go up in July. I've been looking forward to it for 14 years.

"And by the end of the year, we should be taking members of the public into space."

Shrinking the globe

PHOTO: Richard Branson celebrates with his pilots after the test flight in December 2018. (AP: John Antczak)

But it will not come cheap.

Initially flights will cost $US250,000 ($349,000) per person.

However, Mr Branson points out that even that is vastly cheaper than Russian space flights costing about $US30 million.

He also said the cost would come down, and the eventual plan was to use space travel as a way of crossing the globe at speed with a view of the Earth from space on the way.

"The ultimate aim is to transport people around the world at a fraction of the time that they currently take," he said.

"I love going to Australia and I would visit four or five times a year instead of once a year."

A spaceport in Australia is something Virgin Galactic would consider. Talks are already underway with the new Australian Space Agency, but aviation regulations would need to be updated to include spaceships first.

"We would love one day to set up an operation in Australia and to work with the Australian government in making that possible," Mr Branson said.

He said the government had not yet reached out but if it did, Virgin would respond.

Commercial space travel: Game changer or long shot?

PHOTO: 'Galactic girl' appears on all Virgin Galactic spacecraft. (ABC News: Zoe Daniel)

Virgin Galactic sees other uses for its spaceships, including using them to position satellites in orbit at a fraction of the current cost.

The US Government has given the program its blessing, forecasting a boom in the commercial space industry, something that is strongly backed by President Donald Trump, who has also launched a new "Space Force".

"This sector will not only generate revenue, it will drive technological innovation, provide extra terrestrial sources of energy and raw materials and create whole new industries and that means creation of whole new job categories such as commercial astronauts," US Transport Secretary Elaine Chao said as she pinned astronaut wings on two Virgin Galactic pilots recently.

That is despite criticism from the likes of Australian astronaut Andy Thomas, who said the program is dangerous, dead-end, glorified aeroplane travel.

One Time magazine editor called Virgin Galactic "amateur hour" and Mr Branson "a man driven by too much hubris, too much hucksterism and too little knowledge of the head-crackingly complex business of engineering".

Another writer said the company was without a real business plan beyond "the vague talk of space tourism, and the spacecraft it built was hardly able to accomplish even that".

Mr Palermo, however, agrees with Mr Branson's view that tourists will be flying by year's end if testing goes according to schedule.

Mr Branson said commercial space travel had real scope to change the world, in part because it will give people a new perspective on the planet.

"Only 500 people have been to space as of today. They came back and completely changed in a really positive way," he said.

"There is a wonderful book called The Overview, which interviews these people and how they felt looking back on the Earth and what they wanted to do to improve the Earth when they came back down.

"We'd like an army of people that have become astronauts to come back and fight to make this world even more magical than it is today — to spend time protecting the Great Barrier Reef, to spend time just getting on top of climate change, to spend time on all these important issues."


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Virgin Galactic Passenger Beth Moses Details Her Maverick Space Flight
May 1, 2019 Jim Clash [Forbes]

After many years of testing, Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is finally poised to begin commercial spaceflight operations. Within the last five months, the company has sent two SpaceShipTwo Unity flights into space, defined as 50 miles above the Earth. Hundreds of VG's future astronauts are cheering, all of whom have paid $200,000 - $250,000 for their tickets. In addition to the two pilots on the second flight was VG employee Beth Moses, head of astronaut training. She is the first civilian woman to have flown to space aboard a private spacecraft. We thought it would be interesting to catch up with her to discuss her flight. Following are edited excerpts from a longer conversation.

Virgin Galactic's Beth Moses (right) receives her astronaut wings along with her pilots in April 2019. VIRGIN GALACTIC

Jim Clash: You're a bit of celebrity now that you’ve flown. What’s that like?

Beth Moses: To me, it’s all about doing the job and representing the future of our customers and the company. I don’t really have too much time, but I'm told there are a lot of articles out there. I don’t see them, so it’s probably a good thing [laughs].

Clash: You received your astronaut wings a few weeks ago.

Moses: I did. They are shiny gold, and I’m very proud of the team and also happy to have them personally. While they were being pinned on, I felt accomplishment and pride, and was grinning ear to ear. I was the third of our crew to get the wings. Dave [Mackay] and Sooch [Mike Masucci] had theirs pinned on just before me. It was a real moment for everyone. I was so happy, being part of the five-minute ceremony by [FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space] Wayne Montief.

Clash: Did you feel any fear flying on the rocket?

Moses: I was conscious that it was important to do a good job, that this evaluation was priceless down to every nanosecond. Because, if you think about it, every piece of effort that has gone into making this and our spaceflight systems was for the purpose of carrying passengers - Richard and all of our customers - the hopes and dreams and blood, sweat and tears of everyone, past and present. I felt an enormous sense of responsibility not to screw the pooch. But I was never anxious or afraid of the rocket or the ride. I have an extensive background in extreme environment testing. In all truth, I’ve probably had my life at risk to a greater degree many other times in the past. It’s just part of my professional landscape. It [SpaceShipTwo] is really a simple system, so I was never concerned.

Clash: Compare the real flight to the simulations.

Moses: The Gz [force through the head] was of a much lower duration. I reached our expected Gz on boost and re-entry, but was pleasantly surprised at how short it was. It just ramps up and then ramps off. You take a breath and realize, ‘Oh this is high G,’ and you take another breath and say, ‘Oh, this is high G.' By the time you’ve finished your second breath, it's done, and you’re back to normal G. The Gz felt like the centrifuge, but the Gx [force through the chest] I didn’t perceive as strongly as I did in the centrifuge. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I was so happy to be going up. So Gz felt like the NASTAR centrifuge, Gx did not. Both maximums were about 3.6.

Clash: Describe the view up there.

Moses: Stunning, magical, just beautiful. The sky is so black. Forget vantablack, it’s darker. It’s almost indescribable.

Clash: You said there will be four days of preparation just before the flight. How will those days play out?

Moses: Day 1 is about you, your suit, gear and basic flight profile. Day 2 is about the cabin. We have a mock-up. We’ll put you in your seat and talk about weightlessness, explore the cabin and microgravity and have a little bit of medical consult - check all of your vitals. The last day is final checks, a dress rehearsal, a go-for-flight briefing. Day 4 is spaceflight!

Jim Clash: When will Sir Richard Branson fly to space? He says he will be on the first full-up commercial flight.

Beth Moses: As soon as it is safe to do so. I don’t know when. But it's getting closer.

Clash: Are passengers required to do any training on their own?

Moses: They are required to train at Spaceport [America] the three days before the flight, during which we will do high G and a little taste of micro G in an aerobatic aircraft. We’ll make sure everyone in the cabin is comfortable with everyone else. The vast majority - 98% - of our passengers do choose to train on their own in the centrifuge. Most do not choose to do to the parabolic [weightlessness] flight. I think when all get together as a crew, they'll be very pleased with the skill levels and synergy. I think it will be fine.

Clash: Having flown yourself, what advice will you give future flyers?

Moses: I want everyone going up to really savor it. Just leave all of your preconceptions at home. What I don’t want people to do is get all freaked out about any heavy training, that it’s difficult - because it’s not. Come, train, talk about what you want to get out of your flight. We’ll sort it all out in the mockup. The other thing I will tell people is to be prepared that the most visceral part of the flight is re-entry. Everyone’s focused on boost, riding the rocket, enjoying the view, but after you strap back in, there’s still one hell of a ride ahead. I was surprised, even with all of my experience. Entry is really visceral. So I will be telling people in training that.

Clash: Do you realize how lucky you are being the first non-pilot at Virgin Galactic to fly? How does it feel?

Moses: Very unreal, very surreal. I feel extremely fortunate, and I feel responsible to do that honor justice. My test report is a work-in-progress, growing every day because I want to extract every molecule of information from the test that I can.

Clash: Will you fly again?

Moses: I would love to go back up, but I also want to get future astronauts up there as fast as possible. So it depends on what we still have to test, how many test flights we have and for what reasons. We’re actually still mapping that out. But I will not nominate myself. There are lots of other skill-sets and factors that need to be tested, so I will train other folks to do those tests. I’m not trying to blindly hog evaluations. But if there are evaluations that need my particular skill-set, I might fly again. We’re still working that out.

Clash: When you were a student at Purdue, did you think you would ever fly in space?

Moses: I had hoped to do that. I worked my butt off in order to do that [laughs]. I never gave up. But I didn’t really expect it. The odds are against anyone, right? They were even more remote when the commercial space industry didn’t exist.

James M. (Jim) Clash, a New York-based journalist and Fellow at The Explorers Club, covers extreme adventure and culture. He owns a ticket to fly in space with Virgin Galactic.


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Virgin Galactic prepares to move vehicles, staff to Spaceport America
by Debra Werner — May 10, 2019 [SN]

WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, VMS Eve on tarmac at Spaceport America in front of Virgin Galactic's Gateway to Space building, which will house vehicles, flight operations and astronaut preparation. Credit: Virgin Galactic

SAN FRANCISCO – Virgin Galactic plans to move its spaceship, carrier aircraft and flight operations personnel this summer from Mojave, California, to New Mexico’s Spaceport America, company executives announced May 10.

The move will occur after The Spaceship Company, a firm owned by Virgin Galactic, completes the cabin interior for the SpaceShipTwo vehicle VSS Unity, George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic chief executive, said during a May 10 press conference at the New Mexico State Capitol Building in Santa Fe broadcast on Facebook Live.

VSS Unity carried two test pilots and a passenger, Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor, to an altitude of 89.9 kilometers on Feb. 22.

“This test has given us the confidence that it’s the right time to move the spaceship,” Whitesides said.

Virgin Galactic is completing work on the interior of its dedicated facility at Spaceport America, known as Gateway to Space. “We are now in the closing stages of the work on the staff zones of the building and well into the customer astronaut training areas,” Whitesides said.

Virgin Galactic also is updating the hangar for vehicle and operations support. The firm finished building an oxidizer vessel at the site and is nearing completion of a gas farm and antenna station for its facility, he added.

Spaceport America, a 70,000-square-kilometer launch complex, lies approximately 72 kilometers from the town of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Virgin Galactic is expanding its presence in a Las Cruces office building and moving into a dedicated warehouse in Las Cruces, Whitesides said.

“Our Virgin Galactic adventure has been intertwined with New Mexico and Spaceport America right from the start and our stories have unfolded together,” Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic founder, said at the press conference. “New Mexico delivered on its promise to build a world-first and world-class spaceport. Today, I could not be more excited to announce, that in return, we are now ready to bring New Mexico a world-first, world-class spaceline.”

Virgin Galactic intends to move personnel from Mojave to New Mexico during the summer to provide time for workers, particularly families with children, to integrate into new communities, Whitesides said.

Virgin Galactic executives did not indicate when they plan to begin offering commercial flights.

“We still need to finish out our flight test program, though we do feel we are in our final stretch,” Whitesides said. “We will do that in New Mexico using the unique and valuable airspace above the Spaceport. Before commercial operations begin, we will need to finish evaluation of the new outfitted cabin, the experience and the training program for our astronaut customers.”