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Cosmic Space

Virgin Galactic preps for next suborbital steps

Virgin Galactic is gearing up for its first spaceflight from its new home base at New Mexico’s Spaceport America this fall — and says planetary scientist Alan Stern will be among the first commercial spacefliers.

“This is the first selection of a private-sector researcher to fly with NASA funding on commercial vehicles,” Stern said in a news release.

Stern has never flown in space, but he has a lot of space experience: He’s best-known as the principal investigator for NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt — which is hurtling outward on the edge of the solar system, ready for its next assignment.

He also has played roles in more than two dozen other space missions, and served as an associate administrator for science at NASA as well as the Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s board chairman and founder of the Suborbital Applications Researchers Group.

During his upcoming spaceflight, which is yet to be scheduled, Stern will practice astronomical observations using a low-light-level camera that was previously employed during space shuttle flights. He’ll also be fitted with sensors that will monitor his vital signs from just before the two-hour flight until after its landing.

Alan Stern
Alan Stern is associate vice president of the Space Science and Engineering Division at Southwest Research Institute. (SwRI / Purdue Photo)

Stern’s home institution, the Southwest Research Institute, bought tickets to fly on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane almost a decade ago — and his personal interest in taking a trip to space goes back even further in time. Back in 2009, Stern told me that scientific research was likely to become the killer app for suborbital spaceflight.

“You spark this industry with tourists, but I predict in the next decade the research market is going to be bigger than the tourist market,” Stern said at the time.

A decade later, the unexpected twist turned out to be that suborbital research flights preceded tourism trips as money-makers for Virgin Galactic and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture. Just this week, Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship flew a dozen experiments for paying customers on an uncrewed test flight to the edge of space and back.  Scientific payloads have become a standard add-on for Virgin Galactic’s crewed test flights as well.

SpaceShipTwo’s last trip past its 50-mile-high space boundary took place back in February 2019. Since then, Virgin Galactic has moved the focus of flight operations from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port to New Mexico’s Spaceport America. Meanwhile, NASA has been working out the procedures to fund suborbital flights for researchers.

Now the stars seem to be aligning for commercial operations: Today, Virgin Galactic laid out the roadmap that it says should lead to SpaceShipTwo Unity’s first test flight to space and back from Spaceport America this fall.

The company said it’s conducting a series of rehearsals on the ground — and the pilots are using SpaceShipTwo’s carrier airplane, known as WhiteKnightTwo or VMS Eve, as an “in-flight simulator” for the approach and landing.

Chief pilot Dave Mackay explained that “the crew can practice the identical approach and landing pattern to the one they will fly in Unity – with much of the same information displays, and the same view out the window.”

Three scientific payloads will ride on SpaceShipTwo during the powered test flight, thanks to funding from NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. There’ll just be the two pilots on board — Stern and other would-be passengers will have to wait a while longer.

In an application filed with the Federal Communications Commission, Virgin Galactic says it has a “crewed, powered test flight” scheduled for Oct. 22, to be preceded by practice flights by VMS Eve. But that date isn’t written in stone (or even carbon composite).

“Although preparations are going well, we are not quite at the stage where we can confirm specific planned flight dates for either our VSS Unity or VMS Eve test flights,” Virgin Galactic said in today’s update.

All of which means Alan Stern – and hundreds of other potential spacefliers who have signed up for trips on SpaceShipTwo – will probably be watching their e-mailbox (and Virgin Galactic’s Twitter account) very closely in the weeks to come.

Update for 5:49 p.m. PT: I’ve revised this report to make clear that Stern won’t be aboard SpaceShipTwo during its next test flight to space in New Mexico – though I’m betting he’d like to be. 

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Orbite plans to build a space camp for grown-ups

If the 2010s were the decade when small satellites revolutionized the space industry, the 2020s will be when commercial space odysseys finally go mainstream.

At least that’s the gamble that Jason Andrews, the co-founder and former CEO of Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, is taking with French-born tech entrepreneur Nicolas Gaume.

Today Andrews and Gaume are taking the wraps off Orbite, a Seattle startup that will focus on getting would-be spacefliers ready for those future odysseys. “You’re going to go to a space camp for the next generation,” Gaume said.

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Russians give their OK for selling a spacewalk

BELLEVUE, Wash. — Russian space officials say that they’ve signed off on a commercial deal with Virginia-based Space Adventures to fly two customers to the International Space Station in 2023 — and that one of those customers would be allowed to do a spacewalk.

Space Adventures’ co-founder and chairman, Eric Anderson, told GeekWire that the company is now checking to see who’s interested.

“There is no specific client who’s been contracted for this one,” said Anderson, who has his office in Bellevue even though Space Adventures is headquartered in Virginia. “We’re looking for clients.”

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Virgin Galactic, NASA team up for orbital space trips

Charles Simonyi
Seattle billionaire Charles Simonyi took two privately funded trips to the International Space Station, in 2007 and 2009. (NASA Photo via Space Adventures)

Virgin Galactic says it has signed an agreement with NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas to develop a new readiness program for private-sector astronauts heading to the International Space Station.

Theoretically, such astronauts could include the likes of Tom Cruise, who is looking into making a movie at the space station, according to NASA. “I’m all for that,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said last month. “We’re going to do what we can to make that happen.”

Virgin Galactic declined to comment on which customers or companies it might be partnering with, but the company said the newly established program would identify candidates interested in purchasing a ride to the space station, procure their transportation to orbit, and arrange for on-orbit resources as well as resources on the ground.

Some elements of the orbital training program would make use of Spaceport America in New Mexico, Virgin Galactic’s base for commercial space operations.

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Plan to fly passengers to stratosphere gets a reboot

Balloon above Florida
Space Perspective’s balloon-borne capsule, known as Spaceship Neptune, would provide a wide-angle view of the Florida coastline. (Space Perspective Illustration)

The space entrepreneurs who planned to send passengers ballooning into the stratosphere for astronaut’s-eye views of the Earth below, way back in 2013, have revived the idea for a new venture called Space Perspective.

Co-CEOs Taber MacCallum and Jane Poynter unveiled their concept for a balloon-borne capsule called Spaceship Neptune today, and said that uncrewed test flights are due to begin early next year.

“Good things take time,” MacCallum joked during an interview with GeekWire in advance of the big reveal.

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Two-time spaceflier offers advice for travelers

With a photo of his Soyuz launch in the background, Microsoft’s Charles Simonyi talks about spaceflight’s physical effects at a Hacker News Seattle Meetup. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Microsoft billionaire Charles Simonyi is the only man on Earth to buy a multimillion-dollar ride to orbit not just once, but twice — so it’s worth considering the advice he has for future commercial spacefliers:

“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” he said at a Hacker News Seattle Meetup on Feb. 26. “Don’t worry, be happy. It’s going to work out.”

At least that’s the advice he gave a 9-year-old girl who attended Simonyi’s talk. He noted that the girl, who came to the event with her mother, was about the same age as one of his daughters.

“I’m convinced that people of your age will go to space,” Simonyi told her. “Not that they’ll live there. But I don’t think there’s anybody here who hasn’t flown, right? So it’s going to be somewhat the same.”

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Virgin Galactic resumes sales effort for space trips

New Mexico spaceport
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane and its WhiteKnightTwo mothership arrive at Spaceport America in New Mexico. (Virgin Galactic via YouTube)

Virgin Galactic says it’s letting customers pay $1,000 refundable deposits toward suborbital trips on its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, resuming spaceflight sales after a hiatus of more than a year.

In a news release, Virgin Galactic reported that 7,957 people have signed up on its website to register interest in such trips. Starting Feb. 26, all those people will be able to put their money where their interest is.

The company hasn’t yet set the price or the timetable for newly reserved trips under its “One Small Step” program. But based on past statements, the eventual price tag will be more than the $250,000 that Virgin Galactic was charging before it suspended ticket sales in December 2018.

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SpaceX and Space Adventures plan high-flying trips

SpaceX plans to put private citizens in the seats of its Crew Dragon spaceship. (SpaceX Photo via Space Adventures)

Space Adventures says it’s entered into an agreement with SpaceX to send private citizens into orbit on free-flying missions that would take them far above the International Space Station.

The first flight could take place as early as late 2021, carry up to four people on an autonomously piloted Crew Dragon spacecraft, and last up to five days, the Virginia-based company said in a news release and video about the arrangement. In advance of the mission, the spacefliers would undergo a few weeks of training in the U.S.

Today’s announcement follows up on governmental efforts to commercialize space operations in low Earth orbit, and on the Crew Dragon’s successful uncrewed demonstration mission to and from the space station last year.

In contrast to that test flight, the private mission wouldn’t involve a stopover at the space station, and NASA wouldn’t have a primary role in managing the mission. Space Adventures said the flight would be powered by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and lift off from Cape Canaveral in Florida — presumably from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, which is set up for crewed flights.

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Virgin Galactic shows off Under Armour spacewear

Virgin Galactic spacewear
Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, joins the younger set in modeling the line of spacewear created in partnership with Under Armour. (Virgin Galactic Photo / Stephen Counts)

It’s a bit of a stretch to call them spacesuits, but the “spacewear” clothing line unveiled today by Virgin Galactic and Under Armour looks comfortable enough to wear even if you’re not rocketing to the edge of space.

The Under Armour clothing line — which includes a base layer, a spacesuit that’s really a beefed-up flight suit, and zippered flight boots — made its debut at a New York runway show, and will get its space premiere during test flights for Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane.

Next year, Virgin Galactic’s customers are due to wear the custom-made space duds when they climb on board for suborbital trips past the 50-mile space milestone at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

“I love the way the spacewear looks, and I love the way it feels,” Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, said in a news release. “I also love the fact that the next time I put it on, I will be on my way to space.”

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Blue Origin CEO says space trips won’t be cheap

Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith
Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith shows a video of a BE-4 rocket engine firing during the Aerospace Futures Alliance Summit in 2018. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has always shied away from saying how much it will cost to fly to the edge of the final frontier on its New Shepard suborbital spaceship.

But today, Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith hinted at a ballpark figure.

“It’s going to not be cheap,” Smith said at TechCrunch’s Disrupt SF conference.

Although he stressed that the price for passengers hasn’t yet been published, he indicated that Blue Origin now has a price range in mind.

“Any new technology is never cheap, whether you’re talking about the first IBM computers or what we actually see today,” Smith said. “But it’ll be actually in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for people to go, initially.”

Smith added that over time, “we’re going to get this down to the point where middle-class people” can afford a ticket to space.

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