Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
As Virgin Galactic rockets closer to the edge of space, suborbital tourist flights from Spaceport America appear nearer than ever before.
It’s a promise more than a dozen years in the making and riddled with skepticism by critics who question whether the company will ever fly paying passengers into suborbit from southern New Mexico. The fatal 2014 crash of Virgin’s first SpaceShipTwo rocket greatly intensified those doubts, thrusting Spaceport America into a nearly four-year battle to remain afloat while waiting for its anchor tenant to recover and eventually launch operations.
But Virgin has more than recovered, and it’s now closer to its goals than ever before. The company moved from glider to powered flights this spring with its newly reconstructed rocket, the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, putting it on a test-flight trajectory that could take it into suborbit in the next few months.
Virgin Galactic is still testing all aspects of ship performance before, during and after the vehicle fires up its rockets to shoot into space at supersonic speeds, CEO George Whitesides said. It’s performed as planned during three powered flights since April, propelling the company into new territory well beyond the milestones it reached in 2014, before the first spaceship Enterprise broke apart in flight.
“We’ve made good strides forward with the test flights,” Whitesides said. “We have more to go during the course of this year, but the most important thing is we’re now into powered rocket flights again.”
The company no longer gives a timeline for when commercial operations may begin. But with powered Unity test flights underway, Whitesides said the company’s long-anticipated move to New Mexico is drawing near. That will happen once the rocket safely reaches suborbit in repeated flight demonstrations that show all systems are working as they’re supposed to.
“We need to continue the test flight program to fully demonstrate the rocket burn needed to reach space altitude safely,” Whitesides said. “We also need to prove out operations inside the cabin … all the mechanical components, seats, and safety features for our customer experience. Once we’ve done those things, that’s when we feel ready to move down to New Mexico.”
In the latest test flight, on Thursday, the Unity flew more than halfway to space at Mach 2.5 velocity, or more than double the speed of sound. To reach space, it must reach Mach 3, or about 2,300 mph, Whitesides said.
The rocket is actually carried into the air on the belly of a mother ship, the WhiteKnightTwo, before separating from the larger craft at about 50,000 feet. Once separated from the mother ship, the Unity fires its rockets to propel it into space.
To do that, the rockets must burn for up to 60 seconds, or 20 seconds more than they burned in the latest flight, Whitesides said. That puts major stress on the vehicle, so the company is carefully assessing impacts on everything during each test flight before moving to longer-duration burns and faster speeds.
“A lot of shock waves are coming off the vehicle when it reaches Mach speed, which happens in just a few seconds after firing the rocket,” Whitesides said. “It really cooks.”
The main test priorities are focused for now on the vehicle structures, rocket engine burn time and handling qualities.
“We haven’t encountered anything yet, or nothing we can’t handle,” Whitesides said. “We’re constantly learning more about the vehicle and how she flies, and the pilots are getting used to all the handling characteristics. We’re doing it all incrementally to explore the entire flight envelope.”
To date, the Unity test flights have included two pilots in the cabin. Later this year, flight-test engineers will join them in the rear of the vehicle, where passengers will eventually sit, to verify all mechanical components and safety features during flight, Whitesides said.
As the test flight program progresses, the company is simultaneously building two more SpaceShipTwo rockets as part of an initial fleet of five rockets that Virgin expects to operate at Spaceport America.
“We’re well underway in the structural fabrication of the next two spaceships,” Whitesides said. “The cabins and assemblies are all coming together. We’re building it like a Lego, making all the parts and then assembling them to later build in the controls and avionics.”
Virgin Galactic spun out a separate firm, The Spaceship Co., to build all its rockets and related components at the Mojave Air and Space Port, where Virgin has its headquarters. With the foundational rocket and mothership now up and operating, The Spaceship Co. is transitioning into a more mature design, test and manufacturing organization.
The company is exploring automated processes, for example, to rapidly produce the hybrid rocket motors used on the SpaceShipTwo vehicles, which is the only non-reusable element on the spacecraft, according to the online publication Aviation Week & Space Technology. When Virgin Galactic begins commercial operations, it may need hundreds of hybrid motors, which The Space Co. is currently assembling at a rate of two per month.
“We are starting to work on how to productionize the rocket motor, because when we have three spaceships flying, we will need a lot of them,” Spaceship Co. President Enrico Palermo told Aviation Week in April.
Last year, Virgin Galactic spun out another company, Virgin Orbit, to build an entirely new rocket to launch small satellites into low Earth orbit. Like the SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne will lift off into the sky on the belly of a mothership – in this case, a modified Boeing 747-400 – before breaking away and firing its motors to shoot into low Earth orbit.
The company signed an agreement on July 16 with the U.K. Space Agency to conduct Virgin Orbit launch operations from a spaceport at Newquay Airport in Cornwall in southwestern England. But the company is seeking more locations for satellite launch operations, because the plane-based horizontal takeoff system means Virgin Orbit could offer services in many places, providing unprecedented flexibility for payload customers.
Spaceport America could eventually capture some Virgin Orbit business, apart from the suborbital passenger flights and payload services that Virgin will offer at the Spaceport, CEO Dan Hicks said.
“Small-satellite launch capability to low Earth orbit is a huge part of the emerging commercial space industry, and we want to go after it,” Hicks said. “We have the basic infrastructure in place to support it. We’re looking at upgrades that may be needed in the future.”
With progress rocketing forward in the Mojave Desert, Virgin Galactic is steadily building its presence in southern New Mexico. It has 40 employees there now, up from 21 last summer, and plans to eventually ramp up to about 150, Whitesides said. It rented a 30,000-square-foot warehouse in Las Cruces this year to aggregate parts for transport to the Spaceport when operations begin.
“They’re actively preparing to move their team out here,” Hicks said. “It’s a reflection of all the progress being made in Mojave.”