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Virgin Galactic: More delays

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES – Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo aircraft glided into New Mexico’s Spaceport America on Wednesday after pilots flew a series of practice passes in the airspace it will eventually call home – although that day has been pushed back again.

Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo was on the tarmac at Spaceport America on Wednesday, at the site for practice takeoffs and landings. It is the "mothership" that will lift a spaceship to about 50,000 feet before pilot and passengers travel to the edge of space. (Andres Leighton/For The Journal)

Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo was on the tarmac at Spaceport America on Wednesday, at the site for practice takeoffs and landings. It is the “mothership” that will lift a spaceship to about 50,000 feet before pilot and passengers travel to the edge of space. (Andres Leighton/For The Journal)

Virgin Galactic owner and billionaire Richard Branson told David Letterman this week that he hopes to board the first flight to space from New Mexico in February or March next year – not by the end of 2014 as he had previously targeted.

The company aiming to become the world’s first commercial spaceline has experienced delays in its test flight program in California, which must be completed before it can attempt passenger flights from New Mexico’s taxpayer-funded, $209 million spaceport.

“The technology has its own timeline,” said Will Pomerantz, Virgin Galactic vice president for special projects. “It is in many ways the calm before the storm. As the test flight program is nearing its end, we need to be prepared for commercial service to happen as quick as it can.”

In the Virgin system, WhiteKnightTwo, the “mothership,” lifts a vehicle called SpaceShipTwo to about 50,000 feet and releases it – the moment when the spaceship’s rocket motor should ignite and power its two pilots and six passengers to the edge of space.

Rocket-powered test flights of SpaceShipTwo didn’t happen this summer as planned.

Virgin Galactic has blown through its timeline repeatedly over the years as it works to overcome technological challenges. The company has said safety is its priority, not speed to market.

Earlier this year, the company switched the type of rocket fuel it plans to use from a rubber-based fuel to a better performing plastics-based fuel, and that shift required modifying the spaceship’s rocket motor. SpaceShipTwo has completed three rocket-powered flights so far but none yet with the new fuel.

Pomerantz said on-the-ground tests of the new rocket motor are nearly complete and the next series of rocket-powered flights – each attempting greater thrust and higher altitude – will begin “pretty soon.”

“The thing they have to be given credit for is incremental improvements and incremental test programs that will keep the company flying,” said Pat Hynes, director of the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium at New Mexico State University. “That’s the bottom line. Whether Richard Branson flies this year is irrelevant. Keeping the company flying is what is relevant for our state.”

Virgin Galactic's CEO George Whitesides called WhiteKnightTwo's visit to New Mexico a "critical milestone" on the way to operations from Spaceport America.

Virgin Galactic’s CEO George Whitesides called WhiteKnightTwo’s visit to New Mexico a “critical milestone” on the way to operations from Spaceport America.

At Spaceport America, pilots Dave MacKay and Mike “Sooch” Masucci flew WhiteKnightTwo without the spaceship to practice takeoff, approach and landing. The visit was a chance for them and two other pilots, who got a practice run later in the day, to experience the spaceport and New Mexico airspace firsthand.

“It’s great not having any other air traffic,” MacKay said. “There is no other aircraft to worry about. That’s really unusual these days anywhere in the world, I think.”

It was the first time Virgin Galactic has brought the WhiteKnightTwo “mothership” to New Mexico in three years and the first time it brought the aircraft here on its own, without the help of its maker, Scaled Composites. That company handed over the keys to the WhiteKnightTwo earlier this year, when Virgin Galactic assumed the aircraft and took over its operation and maintenance.

Virgin Galactic Chief Executive George Whitesides called WhiteKnightTwo’s visit to New Mexico “another critical milestone on our path to operations from Spaceport America.”

Scaled Composites is expected to deliver SpaceShipTwo to Virgin Galactic later this year, according to Mike Moses, Virgin Galactic vice president of operations.

After the company completes its rocket-powered test flights in Mojave, Calif., it will perform tests at Spaceport America. The company is also awaiting approval of a commercial flight licence from the Federal Aviation Administration.

In its last rocket-powered test flight in January, SpaceShipTwo reached an altitude of 71,000 feet – its highest to date but shy of the 250,000 feet of altitude that marks the U.S.-accepted definition of where space begins.

More than 700 customers have bought tickets worth upwards of $200,000 for a chance to experience zero gravity and glimpse the curve of the earth from space. The current ticket price is $250,000.

“No one is more eager to get up to space than Richard (Branson) and no one is more eager to get him there than us,” Pomerantz said. “We try very hard to not make these dates sound like promises. We are still working at getting into space.”

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