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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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A first: SpaceShipTwo flies free over New Mexico

For the first time, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane flew free in the skies over New Mexico’s Spaceport America, its new base of operations.

The SpaceShipTwo plane, known as VSS Unity, has made rocket-powered flights beyond the 50-mile space milestone during tests at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port, but today’s unpowered test flight was the first to be flown from Spaceport America.

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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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UW rocketeers win the Spaceport America Cup

UW SARP team
Teammates from the University of Washington’s Society for Advanced Rocket Propulsion carry hardware during the Spaceport America Cup competition in New Mexico. (UW-SARP via Facebook)

If at first you don’t succeed … try, try, try again. That’s the formula that the University of Washington’s Society for Advanced Rocket Propulsion followed to win the top prize at this year’s Spaceport America Cup competition, held over the weekend in New Mexico.

The SARP team took the Judge’s Choice and Overall Winner Award at the world’s largest collegiate rocket engineering contest, which is run by the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association and drew 120 teams from 14 countries. Each team is required to design, build and fly a rocket that can reach 10,000 feet or 30,000 feet, depending on the contest category.

SARP’s chief engineer, Jess Grant, said this year’s win comes after a string of three disappointments.

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Virgin Galactic begins its big move to New Mexico

Spaceport America
Spaceport America is becoming the true base of operations for Virgin Galactic. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

After two successful crewed test flights to a 50-mile-high space milestone, Virgin Galactic says it’s shifting its operations from California to New Mexico’s Spaceport America — lock, stock and spaceship.

Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, made the announcement in Santa Fe today, in the company of New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other state dignitaries. The company said the transfer is beginning immediately and will continue over the summer, to minimize the disruption for the school-age children of employees.

More than 100 staff members are affected by the move, Virgin Galactic said in a news release.

The shift follows through on a promise that Virgin Galactic made more than a decade ago, in exchange for New Mexico’s pledge to put state funds toward a project that ended up costing more than $200 million.

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