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Virgin Galactic teams up with Boeing for motherships

Virgin Galactic says it will partner with Aurora Flight Sciences, a Virginia-based Boeing subsidiary, to design and build next-generation motherships for its suborbital rocket planes.

The motherships will serve as flying launch pads for Virgin Galactic’s next-gen, Delta-class spacecraft, just as a carrier airplane called White Knight Two or VMS Eve has served for the company’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity rocket plane.

The system’s design is an upgraded version of the SpaceShipOne system that was funded almost two decades ago by Paul Allen, the late Microsoft co-founder, and won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004.

VSS Unity and VMS Eve have been undergoing test flights for years, and commercial suborbital space missions are scheduled to begin next year at Spaceport America in New Mexico. Hundreds of customers have reserved spots on future flights.

The next-generation mothership and rocket plane are due to start revenue-generating missions in 2025. The partnership announced today will cover the production of two motherships.

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Stratolaunch hits new heights with world’s biggest plane

Stratolaunch says its mammoth carrier airplane rose to its highest altitude yet during its seventh flight test over California’s Mojave Desert.

The aerospace venture, which was established by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen more than a decade ago but is now owned by a private equity firm, reported a peak altitude of 27,000 feet during today’s test.

If all goes according to plan, the twin-fuselage Roc airplane could begin flying Stratolaunch’s Talon-A hypersonic test vehicles for captive-carry and separation testing as early as this year.

One of the prime objectives for today’s three-hour flight at the Mojave Air and Space Port was to gather data on the aerodynamic characteristics of the plane, including a pylon structure from which the rocket-powered Talon-A vehicles will be released and launched.

Roc’s seventh flight came a week after the sixth flight test, which couldn’t achieve all of its objectives.

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Boeing is moving its HQ from Chicago to Virginia

More than two decades after the Boeing Co. moved its headquarters from its Seattle birthplace to Chicago, the aerospace giant is planning to do it again — this time, heading for Arlington, Va.

Boeing confirmed a report about the move that appeared today in The Wall Street Journal. Arlington already serves as the headquarters for Boeing’s defense, space and security business unit, and the company said it would develop a new research and technology hub in Northern Virginia.

“We are excited to build on our foundation here in Northern Virginia,” Boeing’s president and CEO, Dave Calhoun, said in a news release. “The region makes strategic sense for our global headquarters given its proximity to our customers and stakeholders, and its access to world-class engineering and technical talent.”

Boeing didn’t provide a timetable for the HQ switchover.

The move to Arlington in the Washington, D.C., area reflects a classic corporate strategy to have the company’s executive offices close to where the federal government’s purchasing decisions are made.

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‘Downfall’ recounts 737 MAX mess as a tech tragedy

The missteps traced in “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing” — Netflix’s new documentary about Boeing’s troubled 737 MAX jet — are the stuff of Greek tragedy.

Under the direction of filmmaker Rory Kennedy, the youngest child of Robert F. Kennedy, “Downfall” recounts how the aerospace giant cut corners in a race to compete against Airbus, and pressed mightily to minimize the known problems with a computerized flight control system that was capable of causing the 737 MAX to go into a fatal dive.

The result? Not just one, but two catastrophic crashes — first in Indonesia, in 2018, and only months later in Ethiopia. The combined death toll amounted to 346 people. The jets were grounded for nearly two years while Boeing worked on a fix to the control system.

When the Indonesian crash occurred, the root cause seemed to be shrouded in uncertainty. But subsequent investigations showed that Boeing knew the cause had to do with tweaks in an automated software routine known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS.

In the early stages of those investigations, I struggled to explain what MCAS was supposed to do (keep planes from stalling under extreme conditions) and what it ended up doing (forcing planes into a dive). “Downfall” uses graphics and re-enactments to show how MCAS and other points of failure on the 737 MAX figured in the tragedy.

The film also lays out evidence from emails and other documents showing that when the 737 MAX was undergoing certification for flight, Boeing was desperate to avoid providing pilots with extra training, at extra cost — so desperate that the company hid the MCAS software’s capabilities from pilots, airlines and regulators.

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Radian raises $27.5 million for orbital space plane

More than five years after its founding, Renton, Wash.-based Radian Aerospace is emerging from stealth mode and reporting a $27.5 million seed funding round to support its plans to build an orbital space plane.

The round was led by Boston-based Fine Structure Ventures, with additional funding from EXOR, The Venture Collective, Helios Capital, SpaceFund, Gaingels, The Private Shares Fund, Explorer 1 Fund, Type One Ventures and other investors.

Radian has previously brought in pre-seed investments, but the newly announced funding should accelerate its progress.

One of the company’s investors and strategic advisers, former Lockheed Martin executive Doug Greenlaw, said Radian was going after the “Holy Grail” of space access with a fully reusable system that would provide for single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) launches.

It’ll take much more than $27.5 million to grab the grail: In the late 1990s, NASA spent nearly a billion dollars on Lockheed Martin’s X-33 single-stage-to-orbit concept before the project was canceled in 2001. But Radian’s executives argue that technological advances have now brought the SSTO vision within reach.

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Zeva’s flying saucer aces its first free flight

After years of effort, Tacoma, Wash.-based Zeva has executed the first untethered, controlled flight test of its full-scale flying machine — a contraption that looks like a flying saucer.

The demonstration was conducted Jan. 9 in a pasture in rural Pierce County, not far from Zeva’s HQ. During four separate sorties, the Zero aircraft racked up more than four minutes of controlled hovering, simulated taxiing maneuvers at slow speeds, and limited vertical-climb maneuvers.

Zeva’s flying saucer is an electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing craft, or eVTOL, that’s powered by four pairs of rotors. It’s designed to lift off vertically with a single pilot, then transition to a horizontal orientation to fly at speeds of up to 160 mph with a range of up to 50 miles.

“This is a huge inflection point for Zeva as we join an exclusive set of proven flying eVTOL platforms, and a testament to the relentless hard work and ingenuity of our entire team over the past two and a half years,” Stephen Tibbitts, Zeva’s CEO and chairman, said today in a news release.

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World’s biggest airplane flies again for Stratolaunch

Stratolaunch, the aerospace company founded by the late Seattle billionaire Paul Allen, put the world’s biggest airplane through its second flight test today, two years after the first flight.

“We are airborne!” Stratolaunch reported in a tweet.

Today’s takeoff from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port at 7:28 a.m. PT marked the first time the plane, nicknamed Roc after the giant bird of Arabian and Persian mythology, got off the ground since Stratolaunch’s acquisition by Cerberus Capital Management in October 2019.

Roc rose as high as 14,000 feet and traveled at a top speed of 199 mph during a flight that lasted three hours and 14 minutes — which is close to an hour longer than the first flight on April 13, 2019. During that earlier flight, the airplane reached a maximum speed of 189 mph and maximum altitude of 17,000 feet.

Zachary Krevor, Stratolaunch’s chief operating officer, said today’s flight accomplished its test objectives by checking the performance of improved instrumentation, a more robust flight control system and an environmental control system that allowed the pilots to work in a pressurized cockpit. Krevor said the crew included chief pilot Evan Thomas, pilot Mark Giddings and flight engineer Jake Riley.

The flight’s spiciest moment came at touchdown, when one of the plane’s landing gears settled the runway while the other was still in the air. “We did touch down initially on one gear, but that’s exactly the technique we prefer to use during a crosswind landing,” Krevor told GeekWire during a post-landing teleconference. “Though we stayed within our crosswind limits, we did have a little bit of a crosswind, and the aircrew did an excellent job of bringing the aircraft down.”

Since Roc’s first flight in 2019, the business model for the 10-year-old venture has shifted: In its early years, Stratolaunch focused on using Roc as a flying launch pad for sending rockets and their payloads to orbit. The concept capitalizes on the air launch system pioneered by SpaceShipOne, which won financial backing from Allen and won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004,

The new owners still expect to use Roc for air launch, but the current focus is on using the plane as a testbed for Stratolaunch’s hypersonic flight vehicles. Once the plane is cleared for regular operations, perhaps next year, Stratolaunch could begin launching its Talon-A prototype hypersonic plane.

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Bill Gates gives a fresh boost to clean energy

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is putting his money as well as his mouth behind the push for new energy technologies.

First, about the money: Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures is doubling down on its investment in ZeroAvia, a startup that’s working on a hybrid hydrogen-electric powertrain for aircraft capable of flying more than 50 passengers.

Back in December, Breakthrough Energy Ventures led a Series A funding round that raised $21.4 million for the U.S.-British company, with Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund joining in the round. This week, ZeroAvia said Gates’ energy innovation fund is participating in a follow-up investment round amounting to another $24.3 million.

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Boeing ex-CEO’s new tech venture raises $240M

New Vista Acquisition Corp., the blank-check company founded by former Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg to prime the pump for a future high-tech acquisition, went on the market today with an initial public offering valued at $240 million. That’s significantly higher than the originally planned $200 million offering.

The IPO comes a little more than a year after Boeing fired Muilenburg amid controversy over his handling of the company’s 737 MAX crisis. Boeing is still dealing with the financial and reputational aftermath of two catastrophic crashes in late 2018 and early 2019, the worldwide grounding of the 737 MAX fleet that resulted, and deep questions that were raised during investigations into Boeing’s practices.

Boeing is now well into the 737 MAX fleet’s return to service under Dave Calhoun, Muilenburg’s successor as Boeing CEO.

During his time at Boeing, Muilenburg was a strong advocate for technologies focusing on advanced air mobility and autonomous flight — the sorts of technologies that could spawn new types of electric-powered, vertical takeoff and landing vehicles, or eVTOLs. Such craft are also known as air taxis, personal air vehicles or flying cars. Many of Boeing’s efforts in that market have been put on hold due to the financial impacts of the 737 MAX crisis and the coronavirus pandemic.

New Vista, which has Muilenburg as chairman and CEO, says it will focus on businesses operating in the space, defense and communications industries, as well as advanced air mobility and logistics. The company is widely expected to target an eVTOL venture for a merger or acquisition.

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Boeing ends an era at composites research center

Boeing says it’ll be repurposing the Seattle-area facility that has served as the focus for research into the composite materials used in aircraft ranging from the B-2 Stealth bomber to the 787 Dreamliner.

In an emailed statement, Boeing said much of the work being done at the Advanced Developmental Composites Center, situated across the street from Seattle’s Museum of Flight, will be distributed to other Boeing facilities — mostly in the Puget Sound region. Other work, unrelated to Boeing Commercial Airplanes, will continue to be done at the 600,000-square-foot facility.

Boeing cast the move as a cost-saving and efficiency-enhancing measure.