Spaceflight Insider

Virgin Galactic makes plans for new generation of SpaceShipTwo

SpaceShipTwo photo credit Virgin Galactic posted on SpaceFlight Insider

SpaceShipTwo. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic

It has been less than ten weeks since the fatal crash that destroyed Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo which cost the life of co-pilot Michael Alsbury. Despite this setback, Virgin Galactic is already developing a test program for a replacement vehicle, and still hopes to begin tourist flights in 2016. With the setback of the crash behind it, the company appears to be learning from its failures – and moving forward with its efforts to open suborbital flights to paying customers.

Despite the crash and the $250,000 price tag, more than 700 potential space tourists have signed up for a ride on the experimental spacecraft. SpaceShipTwo was designed and constructed by Mojave, California-based Scaled Composites. The SpaceShip Company, a subsidiary of Virgin Galactic, is taking over the manufacture of the new vehicles, the first of which is under construction at the company hangar in Mojave, Calif.

Virgin Galactic is a part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, which includes the airline companies Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic, AirAsia X, and hot air balloon operator Virgin Balloons. The prolific Branson also owns book publishers Virgin Books and Liquid Comics, and even owns a drink manufacturer Virgin Drinks, as well as many other, diverse, companies.

The new version of SpaceShipTwo under construction. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic

The new version of SpaceShipTwo under construction. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic

George Whitesides, the CEO of Virgin Galactic, said that the crash of SpaceShipTwo was: “…the toughest thing that our business could undergo.”

On Jan. 9, 2015, in a speech at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Science and Technology Forum and Exposition in Orlando, Fla., Whitesides said, “Whether on the ground or in the air, developmental test is intended to understand, improve and confirm the capabilities of new systems. Failure in the context of test, while unfortunate and in our case tragic, is essentially part of the deal.”

Whitesides’ comments touched on the fact that the original SpaceShipTwo was lost on a test flight.

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. Photo Credit: Mark Chivers/Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. Photo Credit: Mark Chivers/Virgin Galactic

On Oct. 31, 2014, SpaceShipTwo was dropped from its mother ship White Knight Two. Thirteen seconds later it tumbled out of control, breaking up and plummeting back to Earth. The cause of this accident appears to have been initiated by pilot error. When the craft had achieved Mach 1, Alsbury unlocked the aerodynamic braking system, which is meant to be deployed at Mach 1.4.

SpaceShipTwo uses an innovative braking system referred to as “feathering,” in which the tail and wing assembly rotates to increase its surface area, creating drag. Although the mechanism was unlocked, postflight analysis showed that the feathering deployment handle was not engaged. It is not yet known why the feathering system deployed, but aerodynamic pressure tore the plane apart as soon as the system was extended.

Pilot Peter Siebold was thrown from the craft during the breakup. According to the NTSB,“He stated that he was extracted from the vehicle as a result of the break-up sequence and unbuckled from his seat at some point before the parachute deployed automatically.”

Siebold went on to state, “’I must have lost consciousness at first. I can’t remember anything about what happened but I must have come to during the fall. I remember waving to the chase plane and giving them the thumbs-up to tell them I was OK. I know it’s a miracle I survived.”

Sadly, Alsbury was killed in the crash. Both pilots were employed by Scaled Composites. Siebold is Scaled Composites’ Director of Flight Operations, and he flew SpaceShipOne’s second powered flight. Alsbury had previously flown as co-pilot on SpaceShipTwo’s first powered flight with pilot Mark Stucky.

The crash site of SpaceShipTwo. Photo Credit: Alex Horvath/Barcroft USA

The crash site of SpaceShipTwo. Photo Credit: Alex Horvath/Barcroft USA

The new SpaceShipTwo was already under construction before the crash, but Whitesides said that he would work with the NTSB to determine the cause of the exact crash and to make any necessary modifications to the spacecraft.

“Our team has organized the final steps of the build schedule to accommodate any learnings from the NTSB investigation, and we’re committed to making any modifications or improvements that we feel are necessary to improve the safety of the vehicle,” Whitesides said. “These experienced flight test professionals are now planning the test program for the second spaceship. That test program will not be the same as the test program for the first spaceship, as we will be able to take lessons of the flight test program for that first vehicle and apply them to the second.”

Michael P. Moses, who was launch integration manager for NASA’s Space Shuttle Program, is now Virgin Galactic’s vice president of operations. The flight test team is headed by Todd Ericson, former chief of safety at the U.S. Air Force Test Center. Whitesides said the test team also includes experienced military test pilots. One of the test pilots is former space shuttle astronaut Frederick Sturckow, who flew on shuttle missions STS-88 and STS-105 as pilot, and STS-117 and STS-128 as commander.

Burt Rutan, Michael Alsbury, Mark Forger, and Richard Branson. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic

Burt Rutan, Michael Alsbury, Mark Forger, and Richard Branson. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic

According to Whitesides, flight testing should resume later this year, and, as noted, the company still aims to begin flying commercial flights in 2016.

“Our company is turning the corner and looking to the future. Our team and our investors remain committed to the goal of opening space to all,” Whitesides explained.

“Understanding space is crucial to save our planet, to solve its greatest challenges, and bringing people into space will help connect people to the Earth in ways not possible now,” Whitesides concluded. “We will also see advances in vehicles, which are the key to the solar system. We are undeterred in our commitment to these goals. We have another spaceship at hand, and we are hard at work on LauncherOne. And we will succeed!”

When SpaceShipTwo begins its commercial flights, it will not take passengers into orbit; it will take them on suborbital flights to an altitude of 62 miles. Customers will get a great view of the Earth, a few minutes of weightlessness – before returning to the Mojave Air and Space Port. As mentioned, the company has already signed up a number of individuals who want the opportunity to be considered astronauts. Stephen Hawking, Katy Perry, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Ashton Kutcher and an array of other celebrities have also signed up to take to the skies when SS2 begins flights.

Video courtesy of Virgin Galactic


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Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.

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