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Universe Today

FAA OKs Virgin Galactic’s space passenger service

Virgin Galactic says it’s received the Federal Aviation Administration’s go-ahead to fly customers on its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, marking a significant step in a commercial rollout that could also feature dueling space billionaires.

The FAA’s clearance came in the form of an update to Virgin Galactic’s five-year-old commercial space transportation operator license, the company said today in a news release. The upgrade was based on an analysis of the results from Virgin Galactic’s most recent suborbital test flight, conducted in May at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

During that flight, two test pilots guided the rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity beyond the 50-mile mark that the FAA considers the boundary of outer space. (That’s lower than the internationally accepted boundary of 100 kilometers or 62 miles, known as the Karman Line.)

“The flight performed flawlessly, and the results demonstrate the safety and elegance of our flight system,” Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said. “Today’s approval by the FAA of our full commercial launch license, in conjunction with the success of our May 22 test flight, give us confidence as we proceed toward our first fully crewed test flight this summer.”

Months ago, Colglazier said that four Virgin Galactic employees would join two test pilots on that flight — and that Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, would go on the test flight after that. But that was before Amazon’s billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, said he planned to ride Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceship on July 20.

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GeekWire

Leave Jeff Bezos in space? Petitions take off

Between an upsurge in antitrust talk and questions about worker turnover, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has plenty to worry about here on Earth. His plans to take a suborbital space ride next month on a rocket ship built by Blue Origin, another company he created, could conceivably add to the angst — and not just because of the regular risks of spaceflight.

Two petitions urging him to stay in space have attracted more than 100,000 signatures between them, and the tally continues to climb at a rate as rapid as a signature a second.

Both petitions were posted to Change.org two weeks ago, after Bezos said he and his brother Mark would board Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship on July 20 for an up-and-down flight from the company’s West Texas spaceport. Two yet-to-be-identified riders will join them, including the winner of a $28 million auction benefiting Blue Origin’s nonprofit foundation.

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GeekWire

Blue Origin sells suborbital space seat for $28 million

An open spot on the first-ever crew to fly on Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship was auctioned off today for $28 million, which is millions more than the International Space Station’s first paying tourist reportedly paid 20 years ago.

It took about eight minutes for RR Auction to wind up the bidding at its Boston headquarters. That’s a couple of minutes less than the expected duration of the New Shepard mission, set for July 20 at Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceport in West Texas. And it’s a few minutes more than the yet-to-be-identified winner is expected to spend in zero-G during the flight.

The winner, currently known only as Bidder No. 107, will experience about three minutes of weightlessness and a big-picture view of the curving Earth below the black sky of space. It’ll be one of the priciest per-minute trips in history. But it’ll also go down in the space history books, in part because Jeff Bezos, the founder of Blue Origin and Amazon, will be one of the crewmates.

It didn’t take long for speculation about the winner’s identity to begin — with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, Bezos’ biggest billionaire space rival, thrown into the mix.

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GeekWire

Virgin Galactic downplays billionaire space race

Would Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson try to steal a march on Blue Origin (and Amazon) founder Jeff Bezos when it comes down to which billionaire flies first on their own suborbital spaceship?

There’s been some buzz about that question in the wake of this week’s announcement that Bezos will be among the first people to travel to the edge of space in Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Branson was quick to tweet his congratulations when Bezos’ plans came to light, but also told followers to “watch this space.”

And today, Parabolic Arc’s Doug Messier — who’s long reported on Virgin Galactic’s ups and downs from its home base in Mojave, Calif. — quoted an unnamed source as saying that the company was working on a plan to put Branson aboard its VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo rocket plane for a trip beyond 50 miles in altitude over the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

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Jeff Bezos will be on Blue Origin’s first space crew

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos says he and his brother Mark will fly to space next month on the first crewed flight of his space venture’s suborbital spaceship.

“Ever since I was five years old, I’ve dreamed of traveling to space,” Bezos wrote today in an Instagram post. “On July 20th, I will take that journey with my brother. The greatest adventure, with my best friend.”

The surprise announcement comes even as Blue Origin, the space company Bezos founded 21 years ago, is auctioning off one of the six seats on next month’s flight. The high bid currently stands at $3.2 million, and the final price is due to be set at a live online bidding round on June 12.

Blue Origin says it’s received bids from nearly 6,000 participants from 143 countries. The proceeds from the winning bid will be donated to Blue Origin’s educational foundation, the Club for the Future.

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GeekWire

Blue Origin is auctioning off a seat to space

You had to know the first open seat on a spacecraft built by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture would be sold online — but auctioning it off for charity is an added twist.

After a week of buildup, Blue Origin today unveiled an auction site that will sell off a reservation on its New Shepard suborbital spaceship for its first-ever crewed flight on July 20. That date is the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

To add to the sense of history, today marks the 60th anniversary of Project Mercury’s first crewed spaceflight — a suborbital trip taken by New Shepard’s namesake, NASA astronaut Alan Shepard, in 1961.

“In the decades since, fewer than 600 astronauts have been to space above the Kármán Line to see the borderless Earth and the thin limb of our atmosphere,” Blue Origin said in today’s announcement, referring to the 100-kilometer line that serves as the internationally accepted boundary of outer space. “They all say this experience changes them.”

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Blue Origin gets set to fly a spaceship built for people

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is planning to live-stream the first test flight of its first passenger-friendly space capsule on Thursday.

If all goes according to plan, Blue Origin will launch a never-before-flown New Shepard crew capsule and booster from its West Texas facility on an uncrewed suborbital space trip as early as 9:45 a.m. CT (7:45 a.m. PT), with coverage streamed via Blue Origin’s website and YouTube.

Coverage is due to begin 30 minutes before launch, with the precise timing dependent on weather and technical readiness.

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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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Blue Origin rocket tests NASA’s moon landing system

Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceship today conducted a robotic rehearsal for a future touchdown on the moon — and by all appearances, it stuck the landing.

Testing most of the elements of NASA’s precision lunar landing system was the top item on the agenda for today’s mission, which represented the 13th uncrewed test flight of a New Shepard spacecraft for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ space venture.

New Shepard’s flight had initially been scheduled for Sept. 24, but the launch was scrubbed due to a potential issue with the power supply for one of the 12 commercial payloads on board. It took more than two weeks for Blue Origin to resolve all the technical issues.

New Shepard’s reusable booster blasted off from Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceport in West Texas at 8:37 a.m. CT (6:37 a.m. PT), sending a capsule stuffed with scientific experiments at a maximum speed of 2,232 mph to an altitude in excess of 65 miles (346,964 feet, or 105 kilometers). That’s beyond the 100-kilometer level that marks the internationally accepted boundary of outer space.

Toward the top of the ride, the capsule separated and floated back down to the Texas desert at the end of a parachute. Meanwhile, the booster made a supersonic descent. Just before landing, the booster relit its hydrogen-fueled engine in retro-rocket mode to fly itself autonomously to its landing pad for a record seventh time.

“That never gets old to watch that rocket,” launch commentator Caitlin Dietrich said from Blue Origin’s home base in Kent, Wash. “It almost looks fake, every single time.”

The flight took just over 10 minutes, from liftoff to the capsule’s touchdown.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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Blue Origin hits reset for suborbital spaceship’s test

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is now targeting Oct. 13 for the launch of its New Shepard suborbital spaceship on an uncrewed mission to the edge of space and back, to try out a precision landing system for NASA.

Liftoff from Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceport in West Texas is scheduled for no earlier than 8:35 a.m. CT (6:35 a.m. PT).

A webcast is due to go live at Blue Origin’s website 30 minutes before launch, but there’s always a chance of delays due to weather or technical issues. That was the case more than two weeks ago when Blue Origin postponed the launch. At first, the launch team had to wait for cloudy weather to clear up, and then Blue Origin detected a potential issue with the power supply to the experiments. A day later, Blue Origin tweeted that engineers would be taking extra time to make sure that all the technical issues were fully resolved.

The time frame for launch now extends to Nov. 1, according to an application filed with the Federal Communications Commission.

It’s been 10 months since Blue Origin last launched its New Shepard spaceship, which is designed to carry scientific payloads — and eventually, passengers as well. This 13th uncrewed test flight will be the first to be flown since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, and the first to include extra COVID-19 safety measures.

Get the full story on GeekWire.