Other Virgin Galactic notes

Some other notes from Friday’s talk by Will Whitehorn (as well as another Virgin official, Enrico Palermo, in a panel later in the day) at the FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference:

  • Whitehorn said that he and Richard Branson “got a very excited email from Burt [Rutan]” the day before, after WhiteKnightTwo made its second test flight. Whitehorn said that the hour-and-a-half-flight was “flawless” and that everyone was “really, really, really pleased with the vehicle.”
  • Palermo added in the afternoon that WK2 flew to 18,000 feet (5,490 meters) and reached speeds of 130 knots (240 km/h) during the flight. That was a little bit higher than the first test flight in December, which flew up to 16,000 feet (4,880 meters).
  • Whitehorn said that SpaceShipTwo is “just under” 80 percent complete. Current plans call for the vehicle to begin glide tests by the end of this year. “So we’re on track,” he said. “Everything is looking good.”
  • In his talk Whitehorn didn’t discuss the status of the development of SS2’s rocket motor. I talked to him briefly afterwards and asked him about the status, including any engine tests, which the company had hinted at in recent weeks. “There have been, but not the full scale,” he said. “Subscale models?” I asked. “Yes, that’s been going on,” he replied, adding, “But we don’t really talk a lot about it” because both SpaceDev and Scaled want to keep things under wraps.
  • Whitehorn said Virgin now has “just under” 300 customers now, from 39 countries, with $39 million in deposits. Despite the current economic crisis, he said Virgin continues to sign up customers, including two this week. There have been a few “redemptions” of customers’ deposits, including one person who lost all his money in the Bernie Madoff scandal. “He could say to us that actually we were one of only investments he’d made that hadn’t gone bad.”
  • Regarding those customers, Whitehorn elaborated on statements he made last year on the development path Virgin chose for SpaceShipTwo. The company originally planned to simply develop a “commercial version” of SpaceShipOne, but found out from their customers that they wanted something more spacious than the cramped cabin of SS1. That drove up the size of SS2, and thus also WK2.
  • Increasing the size of the vehicles, he said, meant that Virgin could explore other markets, ranging from science and astronaut training to using WK2 as a platform for launching small satellites. “If we just built WhiteKnightOne and rebuilt SpaceShipOne, we would have basically been restricted to space tourism for a period of time until we then could have developed a second model,” he said. By listening to their customers, they’ve gone straight to that second model that can access those other markets. “Luckily we were saved by the early customers.”

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