Skybox Imaging ramps up its satellite fleet with new partners

skysat-1 perth image

An image of the Crown Perth entertainment complex in Perth, Australia, taken by the SkySat-1 spacecraft in December, among the first images released by Skybox Imaging’s first satellite. That satellite will be joined by a fleet thanks to contracts with two major aerospace companies announced this month. (credit: Skybox Imaging)

Skybox Imaging, the commercial remote sensing company that plans to deploy a constellation of small satellites to provide high resolution images and high definition video of the Earth, is ramping up its plans to deploy that fleet of satellites. The company’s first satellite, SkySat-1, was built in-house and launched with about thirty other satellites on a Dnepr rocket last November from Russia. Now, the company is bringing in some well-known space companies to help build and launch those satellites, a departure not just for Skybox but also its partners.

Last week, Skybox and Space Systems/Loral (SS/L) announced a contract where SS/L will build 13 Skybox satellites for launch in 2015 and 2016. “By partnering with SSL, we can leverage their unique production capabilities to scale with greater cost-efficiency and speed while allowing us to focus on prototyping next generation systems to better serve our customers,” explained Skybox vice president Michael Trela in a release.

The arrangement is convenience for Skybox, not just because it frees them up from having o develop a satellite production line: SSL’s satellite manufacturing facility is in alo Alto, California, just up the 101 freeway from Skybox’s office’s in nearby Mountain View. For SSL, though, this is a expansion into a different class of satellite. The company—acquired in 2012 by Canadian company MDA—is best known for building large commercial communications satellites, weighing 6,000 kilograms or more. Each SkySat that SSL builds will weigh in at just 120 kilograms, with dimensions of 60 x 60 x 95 centimeters. “Based on SSL’s unique strengths as a satellite manufacturer and MDA’s heritage, we are developing new capabilities that will enable us to pursue other earth observation and LEO satellite opportunities in the U.S. and abroad,” SSL president John Celli said in a statement.

Yesterday, Skybox and Orbital Sciences Corporation announced a contract to launch at least some of those satellites. The contract covers the launch of six of those satellites on a Minotaur-C rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in late 2015. The contract, Orbital CEO David Thompson said in a statement, includes “options for additional launch services to support the development of Skybox’s business” beyond the one launch covered by the contract.

The Minotaur-C is a commercial version of Orbital’s existing Minotaur I rocket, placing the Minuteman ICBM motors used in the lower stages of the Minotaur with commercially-procured motors from ATK. (National space policy limits rockets that use retired ICBM motors to launching government-sponsored payloads, so as not to compete with commercially-developed vehicles.) Orbital has talked for some time about developing a commercial variant of the Minotaur to augment or even replace its existing Pegasus and Taurus rockets, and Thursday’s contract is the first announced award for the Minotaur-C.

Crowdfunding Mars, crowdinvesting a space company

When Mars One announced in December its plans for its first robotic precursor missions to Mars, it also started a crowdfunding campaign to raise $400,000. Those funds, the Dutch-based nonprofit organization said, would not be used to fund the robotic mission concept studies announced in December for a lander and orbiter, but “will help us achieve our goals more rapidly” and also demonstrate public interest in Mars One’s ultimate plans to send humans on one-way journeys to Mars, officials said then.

The results for Mars One, as the crowdfunding campaign ended earlier this week, are mixed. Mars One fell short of its $400,000 goal, ending up with $313,749, even after extending the deadline for the effort. However, since Mars One used Indiegogo, rather than Kickstarter and its all-or-nothing model, Mars One does get the money it did raise, making it one of the largest space-related crowdfunding efforts to date. Whether it demonstrated the broad public interest in Mars One that the organization hoped, though, remains to be seen.

UK-based Bristol Spaceplanes is also getting into crowdfunding, or, more accurately, crowdinvesting. The company, which has been working on RLV concepts for more than two decades, started an effort to raise £150,000 via the site Crowdcube, offering not gifts but instead a 5% stake in the company itself. So far, nine investors have pledged just £1,660, including one £1,000 investor. The company notes that investors who put £20,000 or more into the company get a free flight that the company expects to cost £100,000 when—or if—the company starts flights. Crowdfunded investment is something not yet allowed in the US, pending the finalization by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) of long-delayed rules for such investment. The SEC did release proposed rules for crowdfunded investment in October for a 90-day public comment period.

Branson promises commercial SS2 flights this year, and a UAE spaceport soon

SS2 3rd powered flight

SpaceShipTwo fires its hybrid rocket engine during its third powered test flight on January 10, 2014. (credit: Virgin Galactic)

All has been quiet on the SpaceShipTwo test flight front in recent weeks, after the vehicle’s third powered test flight a month ago and a glide test a week later. Despite the lack of public test activity—and continued speculation of problems with the vehicle’s development, including in a recent book—Sir Richard Branson remains confident that SpaceShipTwo will enter commercial service later this year, perhaps after just a few more test flights.

Branson, speaking at the 2014 United Arab Emirates Government Summit Monday in Dubai, said he was still confident that SpaceShipTwo would stary carrying customers on suborbital space tourism flights before the end of the year. “We have 300 engineers beavering away on it,” Branson said, according to Arabian Business. “We have two more test flights [and we should] go into space in three to four months time.”

Last May, Branson, also speaking in Dubai, said he expected to fly in space by Christmas 2013, a date that long since has come and gone. Yesterday, he said he would be worried if he doesn’t fly by the end of this year: “If myself and my family are not in space by the end of the year, I would be very, very worried.”

Branson, at a later event in Dubai, addressed criticism of Virgin Galactic in Tom Bower’s new book. “There are some people who seem to want things to fail and I think he falls into that category,” he said, Bloomberg News reported. “The best way of dealing with people like that is to prove them wrong and we will prove them wrong in the next few months.”

Branson also said Virgin was still planning to develop a spaceport in the UAE. “I hope we’ll have a space hub in Abu Dhabi in a couple of years,” he told the UAE publication The National. In April 2012, Virgin Galactic hired Steve Landeene, the former head of Spaceport America in New Mexico, as its “Chief Advisor, Spaceport Abu Dhabi”.

Virgin Galactic commercial director Stephen Attenborough, though, said that it would be some time before a formal announcement about the spaceport would be ready, and likely not until SpaceShipTwo begins commercial flights from Spaceport America. “Once that is established, we may seek the necessary US export approvals to operate from locations outside the US with Abu Dhabi as a likely first overseas base, should those approvals be forthcoming,” he told The National

Shiloh spaceport study gets underway, but is it too late for SpaceX?

Shiloh Launch Complex map

Map of the proposed Shiloh Launch Complex, featuring two pads (lower right), a business park (lower left) and an industrial site (top center). (credit: FAA)

This is a big week for those who both support and oppose plans to develop a commercial launch complex north of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. On Tuesday and Wednesday evening, the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation will hold “scoping” meetings for a planned Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for what’s known as the Shiloh Launch Complex, named after a former community at the site. The proposed commercial launch site would feature two pads on the Atlantic coast straddling the boundary between Brevard and Volusia counties, a short distance north of KSC, as well as a business park and industrial site. Each pad would be designed to accommodate 12 launches and an equal number of static fire tests per year.

The public hearings—in the city of New Smyrna Beach on Tuesday and Titusville on Wednesday—are intended to solicit input from the community about what should be included in the EIS. That study will get underway later this year and will likely be the critical factor in the request by Space Florida, the state space development organization, for a spaceport license for the facility; without the license, or even with a license that contains sharp restrictions on operations based on the outcome of the EIS, the Shiloh facility may not be built at all.

The proposed Shiloh Launch Complex has aroused interest, and concerns, from the local community. Space Florida and space industry backers see the site as critical to attracting commercial launch activity without the restrictions and overhad of operating at KSC or the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station; supporters plan to attend the hearings wearing red. Critics, though, worry about the facility’s potential negative impact on local wildlife, access to public beaches and wildlife preserves, and even the ruins of a 18th century British sugar plantation. Those concerns are described in detail in an article in Sunday’s Daytona Beach News-Journal.

The official documents about the Shiloh launch site don’t mention a specific customer; instead, the launch pads and associated facilities are designed for “liquid fueled, medium- to heavy-lift class orbital and suborbital launch vehicles.” However, it’s widely believed that the anchor customer for this facility—if it’s built—would be SpaceX, given that company’s long-standing desire for a commercial launch facility separate from the pads it leases at Cape Canaveral and California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Florida, though, isn’t the only state pursuing SpaceX, and the Sunshine State’s bid could be clouded out by Texas. SpaceX has been quietly buying land at a site on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico east of Brownsville, just a few kilometers north of the Mexican border. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said on a number of occasions, including a talk last March, that Brownsville was the leading candidate for SpaceX’s planned new commercial spaceport.

That decision could be coming soon, which may be bad news for Shiloh’s supporters. The Brownsville Herald reported last month that the EIS for the Texas site should be completed and released to the public by “late winter.” Since the EIS has traditionally been the “long pole” in any spaceport licensing decision, the release may mean a license could soon follow, long before Shiloh’s EIS is complete. If SpaceX wants to make a decision in the near term about a spaceport site, that would favor Brownsville, provided other factors, including economic incentives provided by state and local governments, come together.

The head of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), former astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, told the Houston Chronicle recently that he believes SpaceX will select the Brownsville site. “I think all indications are that he will” select Brownsville, Lopez-Alegria said, referring to Musk. “I know that there’s still some talk about Florida, and Space Florida is a member of CSF so I wish them well as well, but it will be interesting to see.”

SpaceX sets date for next CRS mission as Orbital makes long-term plans

Falcon 9 CRS-2 hot fire

The Falcon 9 carrying the Dragon spacecraft for the CRS-2 (aka SpX-2) mission during an engine test last year. The next SpaceX cargo mission to the ISS, CRS-3/SpX-3, is now scheduled for launch March 17. (credit: SpaceX)

The long-awaited third SpaceX Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) finally has a firm launch date. The Falcon 9 launch of the Dragon cargo spacecraft on a mission designed CRS-3 by SpaceX (and SpX-3 by NASA) is now scheduled for 4:41 am EDT (0841 GMT) Sunday, March 16 from Cape Canaveral, according to a NASA media advisory published Friday. The mission had previously been scheduled for February 22, but was delayed for unspecified reasons; the new launch date was selected based on “SpaceX readiness, splashdown dates and station activities,” a NASA spokesman told Space News. The mission’s date had been slipping for some time, largely due to launches ahead of the SpX-3 mission and SpaceX work on getting the v1.1 version of the Falcon 9 flying.

The revised date means it will be a little more than a year since the previous SpaceX CRS mission, CRS-2/SpX-2, which launched on March 1, 2013. Since then, Orbital Sciences Corporation has successfully flown its Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS on a Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration mission last September, and its first CRS mission, Orb-1, last month.

The Orb-1 Cygnus is still berthed to the ISS. Bill Claybaugh, senior director of human space systems at Orbital, said at the FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington on Wednesday that this Cygnus is scheduled to be unberthed from the ISS on February 18, and will reenter one day later. The second Orbital CRS mission, Orb-2, is scheduled for launch May 1, carrying an estimated 1,633 kilograms of cargo to the ISS, Claybaugh said. That will be followed by Orb-3 in October and Orb-4 in January 2015.

Orbital’s current CRS contract is for eight Cygnus missions, currently scheduled into 2016. With ISS current slated to operate to at least 2020, and with the Obama Administration’s announcement of its desire to extend ISS operations to at least 2024, Claybaugh said Orbital is preparing for potential additional CRS missions. “We are already buying long-lead hardware required for those additional missions, and that’s being done at our risk,” he said, since NASA hasn’t announced plans for extending, or recompeting, the current CRS contracts.

What the media got right and wrong—and missed—about Virgin Galactic’s China problem (updated)

It’s not uncommon for the media to mangle space-related developments, either by getting the facts wrong or misinterpreting their importance, as they did recently reporting that Virgin Galactic did not yet have a license for its flights, even though it didn’t need a license now for its test flights and wasn’t even “late” in getting a response from the FAA regarding its application. And, sometimes, even when the media gets the news right, it’s not even new or, even worse, it misses a more significant issue.

That was the case this week with reports that Virgin Galactic is not allowing Chinese nationals to fly. That news, completing with the release of a British book that provided an unflattering assessment of Virgin Galactic, claimed that Chinese citizens were told they needed to get another nation’s passport, or a US green card, in order to fly on SpaceShipTwo. The story appears to trace back to an article in the Daily Mail on January 25, which cited an unnamed Virgin Galactic salesman in Hong Kong (Virgin Galactic does have an “accredited sales agent” there, Miramar Travel Ltd, according to its website.) Other publications picked up on that report, including high-profile ones like The Independent, the South China Morning Post, and

The “good” news about this report is that it is true., one of the few outlets who did some original reporting, contacted Virgin Galactic and got a statement from the company confirming the ban on Chinese nationals. “Virgin Galactic adheres to both the spirit and the letter of U.S. export controls and has for now chosen not to accept deposits from countries subject to U.S. export and other regulatory restrictions,” spokesperson Christine Choi told

That’s a reference to the fact that space systems like SpaceShipTwo are currently under the jurisdiction of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), a law that places restrictions on the export of sensitive technologies. In particular, ITAR prohibits the export of any technologies that are under its control to selected nations, sometimes called “part 126.1 nations” from the section of ITAR that lists them. Those countries listed in part 126.1 of ITAR include China, which means that such technology can’t be exported to them.

While there are no plans to fly SpaceShipTwo from China, the technical information that companies have to provide passengers both for their safety and to comply with the “informed consent” provisions of their FAA licenses could fall under ITAR. (A reader has since noted that existing law does not explicitly require companies to provide detailed technical information that could run afoul of ITAR in order to obtain informed consent.) Several years ago, Virgin Galactic sought a ruling, called a commodity jurisdiction (CJ), from the State Department about whether such information fell under ITAR or instead under the less restrictive regulations governed by the Commerce Department. In early 2012, the State Department ruled that “Virgin Galactic Commercial Suborbital Space Tourism Experience and Related Required Safety-related Training and Briefings” fell under the jurisdiction of Commerce.

That would seem to get Virgin off the hook of having to comply with ITAR, and its restrictions on various nations, for the purposes of training and preparing customers for spaceflight. In 2009, Bigelow Aerospace sought and received a similar CJ regarding training for people who would fly on its orbital habitats. The report at the time, though, indicated that despite the favorable ruling, people from part 126.1 nations, including China, would still not be able to fly.

The news, though, missed a few things. One is that, despite the flurry of reports in the last week, Virgin’s prohibition on Chinese customers is not new. Back in 2011, for example, CNET reported that “Virgin is not allowed to sell any tickets to China due to US regulatory reasons” as part of a general article about the company. So what seems like a revelation is, in fact, old news.

The second is that the regulatory environment may be changing. The Virgin Galactic spokesperson told that “Virgin Galactic may adapt its policies in consultation with appropriate regulators, legislators and other stakeholders.” The US government is in the midst of a review of Category XV of the US Munitions List, which covers satellites and related items, with plans for a final version of the revised list due out this spring. However, a draft of that revised Category XV list would keep suborbital crewed vehicles under the control of ITAR, much to the consternation of people in the industry. Moreover, even if suborbital vehicles are moved off the US Munitions List, exports to China (and, thus, presumably, sales of tickets to Chinese customers) would remain prohibited under the terms of the bill that allowed satellites and related items to be taken off the US Munitions List in the first place.

The final, and perhaps most interesting, item missed by the news reports this week is what another suborbital provider is doing. Just over a month ago, Space Expedition Corporation (SXC), the Dutch company that is selling seats on XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx suborbital spaceplane, announced it has named a sales agent in… wait for it… China. “I am extremely excited about this opportunity with SXC as we introduce this unique travel experience to the rest of China,” Alex Zhang, CEO of Dexo Travel, the sales agent for SXC in China, said in the statement. Alex Tang, the head of SXC’s Asia division, added in the statement that the company had seen “a surge in curiosity and interest, esp. from the Chinese market” in recent months. Clearly, SXC is selling seats on Lynx flights to people in China.

SXC, while not an American company, would still appear to be restricted by the same export control regulations as Virgin Galactic, since the Lynx vehicle is American (and currently being built just down the flight line at Mojave Air and Space Port from Virgin Galactic’s facilities.) XCOR does have a CJ from the State Department regarding its Lynx vehicle, issued in late 2011, but the text of that CJ is not publicly available and thus what language it has, if any, about training is not known.

Update: A reader pointed out language in the proposed revised Category XV rule, released last May, that would get Virgin and suborbital companies off the hook entirely with regards to export control issues for training passengers. The fourth page of that document (numbered 31434) states that earlier studies of export control reform had considered the need to include “technology required for passenger participation in space travel” of any type. “The Departments of Defense and State have since reviewed such technology and concluded that it is not per se now subject to USML Category XV,” the document states. “There is thus no proposed inclusion of such technology as a general matter in either the proposed USML Category XV or the proposed 9E515,” a reference to the updated Commerce export control rule. If that provision survives through the final rule, expected to be published this spring, commercial space companies in general would not have to worry about barring Chinese citizens from flying on their vehicles.

Briefly: Orbital Outfitters moves to Midland; Waypoint 2 Space gets FAA nod; SNC begins CDR

The quest by Midland, Texas, to become a hub of commercial space activity notched another victory recently. The Midland Development Corporation (MDC), the city’s economic development organization, announced that commercial spacesuit developer Orbital Outfitters will move to Midland in 2015. The deal covers the construction of a new building on about 2 acres (0.8 hectares) of land at Midland International Airport equipped with an altitude chamber to support spacesuit development and training. The MDC announcement does not give any costs to MDC for the deal, but a report in the Midland Reporter-Telegram says the package offered to Orbiter Outfitters is valued at $6.9 million, including $5.4 million for the headquarters building and altitude chamber complex. The rest covers relocation costs for the company, which currently has offices in Los Angeles and Washington, DC.

Orbital Outfitters becomes the second NewSpace company to announce plans to relocate to Midland. In mid-2012, XCOR Aerospace announced it would move from Mojave, California, to Midland thanks to a $10-million incentive package. “Midland is becoming a destination for aerospace companies looking for the ideal location and collaboration opportunities for their endeavors,” MDC chairman Robert Rendall said in a statement.

Across the state from Midland, Houston-based Waypoint 2 Space announced this week that it has received a safety approval from the FAA from its commercial space training program. An FAA safety approval, according to the agency, is a determination that the approved item or process “will not jeopardize public health and safety, or safety of property, when used or employed within a defined envelope, parameter, or situation.” It is not explicitly required, but makes it easier for launch operators to use approved items or processes as part of their their own vehicles and programs.

Waypoint 2 Space plans to start offering training in “late spring” of this year, with three levels of training planned: a week-long fundamentals course, suborbital training, and orbital training. While the company has its FAA safety approval, the company is still working out agreements with NASA to use facilities at the Johnson Space Center. Ultimately, the company plans to construct its own facilities to provide training.

On Thursday, Sierra Nevada Corporation announced that its Dream Chaser vehicle has started the critical design review (CDR) process, the final major review before beginning actual vehicle construction. However, the milestone the company achieved on its Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) agreement with NASA is what’s called an “incremental” CDR, not the full-fledged final CDR. The milestone was added as an amendment to the company’s CCiCap agreement, pulling out part of an optional milestone in the original agreement. (That original optional milestone, which covered a full CDR, was redacted in the publicly released version of the original CCiCap award.) The incremental CDR is described in the amended CCiCap agreement as “the first of a series of reviews that support the Dream Chaser Space System (Dream Chaser Spacecraft, Launch Vehicle, Mission and Ground Systems) ICDR [integrated CDR].”

New Branson bio examines delays and other problems with Virgin Galactic

Branson and Richardson

Sir Richard Branson and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson pose in front of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo at Spaceport America in October 2010. A new biography of Branson takes a critical look at Virgin Galactic’s development of SpaceShipTwo (credit: J. Foust)

A new biography of Sir Richard Branson, being published in the United Kingdom this week and excerpted today in the Sunday Times of London, outlines the lengthy delays that Virgin Galactic has experienced developing SpaceShipTwo, including claims that as recently as late 2012 developers considered replacing the vehicle’s hybrid rocket engine.

Branson: Behind the Mask is actually the second biography of Branson written by Tom Bower, a British author who has written a number of books on personalities ranging from politician Gordon Brown to entertainer Simon Cowell. Bower previously wrote Branson in 2000, before Virgin Galactic started work on SpaceShipTwo. At least part of the new book is devoted to Virgin Galactic, based on the excerpt published in the Sunday Times. (The full article is available only to subscribers, unfortunately. For those anxious to read it, the newspaper does offer a 30-day subscription trial for just £1, or about US$1.65. Some other newspapers will also later reprint Times of London articles without a paywall barrier, but whether they will reprint this excerpt, and when, is uncertain.)

Much of the excerpt deals with the development, and the corresponding delays, of SpaceShipTwo. When Branson first announced plans for Virgin Galactic in 2004, he claimed the company would enter service in 2007. It hasn’t yet, more than six years later, and the company is now planning on it starting commercial flights in the second half of this year. Bower, like many observers, pins those delays on problems with the vehicle’s hybrid rocket motor, which uses a solid fuel like rubber and a liquid oxidizer, nitrous oxide.

Much of that delay had to do with the July 2007 accident in Mojave where the detonation of a tank of nitrous oxide destroyed a test stand, killing three Scaled Composites employees. The excerpt begins with a dramatic recounting of the explosion, which Bower revisits later in the article, suggesting that the company tried to mislead the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) investigator, Randy Chase, assigned to investigate the accident:

Ignorant about rocket motors and nitrous oxide, Chase was cast into a scientific wilderness among engineers keen to steer him away from any conclusion that might damage Mojave’s most prominent customer.

After clocking up nearly 1,000 hours at Mojave, he blamed careless safety procedures, which meant there was no reason for the local sheriff even to hold a coroner’s inquest. Rutan’s company was fined $25,000 for safety violations.

Rutan’s engineers later discovered the real cause of the accident: the composite liner inside the tank had dissolved and contaminated the nitrous oxide, leading to the explosion.

It’s worth noting that a separate analysis of the final Cal/OSHA report, obtained under a state public records act, says nothing about a dissolving liner in the nitrous tank, but instead blames the hot temperatures at the time of the test that put the nitrous oxide into a supercritical state.

Bower suggests the continuing problems developing SpaceShipTwo’s engine caused management changes at both Virgin Galactic and Scaled:

Nonetheless, Branson could no longer disregard his skewed timetable. George Whitesides, Nasa’s former chief of staff, became head of Virgin Galactic in place of Whitehorn, who had failed to deliver the rocket. And Rutan retired. Ill health was given as the reason, although another explanation may have been his failure to deliver a successful motor.

At a November 2012 meeting Branson attended, Scaled’s new leadership reported argued for replacing the hybrid motor with a liquid-propellant one:

Doug Shane, who had replaced Rutan as chief designer, proposed building a completely new engine using liquid fuel. Branson replied that he needed something immediately. Shane reassured his boss that the rocket would make a powered flight during 2013. There would be spectacular flights amid bursts of publicity. In private, they also agreed to develop an alternative motor powered by conventional fuel.

Virgin is developing two liquid-propellant engines that use RP-1 and liquid oxygen, and announced just a few days ago that the two engines had completed an initial series of tests. However, those engines are being developed for the company’s separate LauncherOne uncrewed small satellite launch vehicle, and plans for that vehicle, including the use of non-hybrid engines, predate that late-2012 meeting Bower recounts. Parabolic Arc reported earlier this month that Scaled has been testing an alternative hybrid motor that uses a nylon-based solid fuel, but this isn’t discussed in the book excerpt.

Much of the excerpt deals with the repeated claims by Branson that commercial flights of SpaceShipTwo were only a year or two away, even as that schedule continued to slip, and how much of the media accepted those claims unquestioningly. It fits into a broader narrative of Branson that Bower makes: that Branson is more style than substance, a showman whose profile is diminishing along with the financial performance of Virgin’s various businesses, which Branson is not involved with on a day-to-day basis. “The impression following his reluctant admission that he no longer actively managed his empire was of an ageing sun lizard,” Bower writes.


SpaceShipOne in the Milestones of Flight gallery of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, as seen in early January of 2014. Contrary to a statement in Bower’s book, there are no Virgin Galactic logos on the vehicle, which has been restored to its appearance on its June 2004 suborbital spaceflight. (credit: J. Foust)

Bower provides few sources for his information, including the claims that Scaled proposed switching to a liquid-propellant engine in late 2012, so verifying those statements is difficult. In a couple of cases, though, there are errors in his recounting of events that are in the public domain. For example, Bower writes this about how Branson decided to pursue a deal with Scaled Composites back in 2004:

In September 2004, White Knight, a twin-fuselage plane, took off carrying the rocket SpaceShipOne. Strapped inside it were a pilot and a casket with the cremated remains of Rutan’s mother, who had died in 2000.

At 50,000ft White Knight released SpaceShipOne, which soared at three times the speed of sound before crossing the winning tape 62 miles above Earth. After three minutes of weightlessness, it glided back to California.

Branson was convinced. In exchange for adding the Virgin Galactic brand name to SpaceShipOne, he offered $1m. His audacity in business is to bid low in order to try to tilt the deal in his favour from the outset: because he wants a bargain and because he has considerably less money than wealth-watchers assume. His sales patter is consistent: “We’re risking Virgin’s invaluable name, and you’re getting all the upside.”

The excerpt suggests that Branson decided to reach a deal with Scaled after the first of the two flights SpaceShipOne performed to win the Ansari X PRIZE in late September 2004. In fact, Virgin and Scaled made that announcement on September 27, two days before the first of the two prize flights, likely after weeks, if not months, of negotiations. Moreover, the $1-million offer, if correct, was probably only the beginning of the fees Branson paid to Scaled and to Paul Allen, who licensed SpaceShipOne’s technology to Virgin for SpaceShipTwo. In his 2011 memoir, Idea Man, Allen said he got a “net positive return” on the $28 million he invested in SpaceShipOne through the prize money, licensing fees, and the tax writeoff he got from donating SpaceShipOne to the National Air and Space Museum. Since Allen split the $10-million prize with Scaled, he likely got significantly more than $1 million from Virgin unless the tax writeoff of SpaceShipOne’s donation was extremely large.

And, speaking of SpaceShipOne in the National Air and Space Museum, Bower writes, “Within days, the prestigious Smithsonian Institution in Washington agreed to exhibit the rocket in its permanent collection of aviation milestones. Daily thousands of visitors would gaze at the iconic logo — Virgin Galactic — emblazoned on the tailfin.” Except that SpaceShipOne, when it was installed in the museum’s Milestones of Flight gallery in 2005, was “restored” to its appearance on its first suborbital spaceflight in June 2004, before the deal with Virgin. There are no Virgin Galactic logos on SpaceShipOne in the museum.

These might seem like minor errors, and in the bigger scheme of things, they are. However, when you see errors in the material you know about, you wonder about the accuracy of the material you don’t know. Without more detailed sourcing (which may be included in the full book) one should take some of the claims with a degree of skepticism.

(Note: despite some reports the book will also be published this week in the US, there is no official publication date for Branson: Behind the Mask in the US. The page for the book last week gave a February 28 publication date, but as of Sunday it simply states that the book is “currently unavailable.”)

For SpaceShipTwo, focus on the engine, not the license

SS2 first powered flight

SpaceShipTwo during its first powered test flight on April 29, 2013. It has made only two powered flight since then, something that may be a bigger concern than whether it has a launch license yet. (credit: Virgin Galactic/

Since the third powered SpaceShipTwo test flight early this month, the vehicle has flown again, although not under rocket power: a glide flight January 17 that, for the first time, had a former NASA astronaut at the control: Rick “C.J.” Sturckow, who flew on four Space Shuttle missions before joining Virgin last year. On Thursday, Virgin released information on the liquid-propellant engines its developing for its LauncherOne small satellite launcher, called NewtonOne and NewtonTwo. The engines, which use RP-1 and liquid oxygen, have completed an initial series of hot-fire tests.

Virgin, though, has been getting attention for something it hasn’t done yet: obtain a license from the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) for commercial SpaceShipTwo flights. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) ominously warned that Virgin’s customers “could be grounded by FAA” because the company has yet to receive its license from the FAA. Those concerns got picked up in other media: “Regulations Could Delay or Prevent Space Tourism” declared a post on Slashdot. “Virgin Galactic Started Selling Tickets to Space Before Getting Permission to Take People There” said Smithsonian Magazine, hinting that what Virgin was doing was perhaps illegal, or at least unethical.

The reality of the situation, as you might expect, is more complex than those stories with headlines that border on clickbait. Virgin submitted an application for a launch license with FAA/AST in August, according to statements by both FAA and Virgin officials. Once an application is deemed sufficiently complete by the FAA, it starts a 180-day clock to review the application. That 180-day deadline for a decision by the FAA doesn’t come until some time in February, depending on when in August the FAA formally accepted the application. That 180 days likely doesn’t include the period of more than two weeks in October when FAA/AST was effectively closed during the government shutdown. Thus, it’s hardly surprising that Virgin Galactic doesn’t have a license yet.

Moreover, even if the award of the license is delayed, it alone doesn’t necessarily become an obstacle for Virgin. The company currently has an experimental permit from FAA/AST, allowing it to perform powered test flights but now allowing revenue-generating flights. That permit allows Virgin to continue flight tests up to and including full suborbital flights. Virgin will need a license once it starts commercial service (which won’t be until at least August, based on previous reports), but not before then.

At Parabolic Arc, Doug Messier argues that FAA “will need to see a number of successful flights before they agree to let Virgin Galactic fly paying passengers.” That’s possible, but it’s worth noting that a number of expendable launch vehicles (without people on board, of course) received launch licenses before their first flights, including SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Also, SpaceShipOne received its launch license from the FAA in early 2004 after just one 15-second powered test flight. That, though, was before FAA/AST had the authority to grant permits for suborbital test flights.

These suggestions that AST will delay the granting of a license are based on the argument that they’ll wait until there’s a series of suborbital test flights that demonstrate that the vehicle is safe for Virgin’s customers. However, that is not FAA’s mandate. The FAA’s primary focus in on protecting the safety of third parties: those people, and their property, not involved with the launch. Under current law (51 USC 509), flights of “spaceflight participants” are allowed under a launch license under the “informed consent” regime: the license holder has to inform the participant about the risks associated with the flight and that “the United States Government has not certified the launch vehicle as safe for carrying crew or space flight participants”. The participant must then provide “written informed consent” to fly.

Under the Commercial Space Flight Amendments Act (CSLAA) of 2004, the FAA is restricted from promulgating other safety regulations involving spaceflight participants except in the event of “a serious or fatal injury” during a flight, or “an unplanned event or series of events” during a flight that “posed a high risk” of causing such an injury. That restriction was to expire in December 2012, eight years after the CSLAA became law, but in early 2012 Congress amended the law to change the deadline to October 2015.

The CBC article treats that current regulatory restriction as something of a flaw. If Virgin does get its license, it reports, “the flights could take place without the kind of safety rules that go into more conventional forms of air travel.” That is, as one space law expert quoted in the article notes, a deliberate aspect of the law: that restriction was designed to allow the industry to build up flight experience upon which regulations could be based (and is why many in the industry refer to it as a “learning period” rather than a moratorium.) The lack of flights by Virgin and others, though, led Congress to extend the expiration of this learning period at least once, and some in the industry have pressed for another extension.

The emphasis on a lack of a commercial launch license, then, is something of a red herring. Virgin doesn’t need a launch license now to continue its testing regime, isn’t late now in receiving one, and given current law, there’s no reason to believe the Virgin won’t receive one before it plans to begin commercial flights, so long as as it can demonstrate the vehicle’s safety to the uninvolved public.

What should be a focus of concern, though, is what could delay SpaceShipTwo from beginning commercial flights this year: its hybrid rocket engine. While Virgin officials indicated last year that they would be gradually increasing the burn times of that engine on its powered flights, the third powered flight fired its engine only a few seconds longer than the first flight, more than eight months earlier. The long gaps between powered flights have also raised questions about the status of the engine, including speculation that the engine is somehow underpowered for its planned suborbital flights and that it is working on an alternative engine that uses a nylon-based fuel.

Last last month, perhaps to counter some of that speculation, Virgin released a video that showed, among other highlights, a full (approximately 55-second) burn of that hybrid engine in a ground test. Scaled Composites has also released logs of “RocketMotorTwo” test firings, but as Messier noted a few days ago, these logs contain so few details as to be of little use. The thing to watch, then, is not whether or when Virgin gets a launch license for SpaceShipTwo, but when and how SpaceShipTwo actually flies under its current—or alternative—engine design.

On CCtCap deadline day, Sierra Nevada keeps chasing its dream

Dream Chaser in orbit

Illustration of the Dream Chaser spacecraft in orbit. Sierra Nevada Corporation is looking beyond NASA for both customers and technology to support its development. (credit: SNC)

Today is the deadline for proposals for the next phase of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, called the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability, or CCtCap. The three companies that have funded agreements under the current phase of the program, Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap), are expected to submit proposals for CCtCap as well. (Other companies may submit proposals as well, but would likely be at a severe disadvantage compared to the CCiCap firms.)

Two of those companies, Boeing and SpaceX, have kept a relatively low profile in recent weeks. NASA announced last week a successful parachute test for SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft that was an optional milestone for SpaceX’s CCiCap award, but otherwise the two companies have said little about their ongoing work or their CCtCap plans.

The third company, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), has been more active, however. Earlier this month, the company held a press conference in the Washington area to announce what it called the “international expansion” of its Dream Chaser space transportation system. That expansion consists of separate agreements with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the German space agency Deutsche Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR) to study technologies those organizations could have that could be applied to Dream Chaser.

These agreements are preliminary steps for potential future cooperation, the company said at the press conference. “The relationships right now essentially are frameworks for what might be future cooperation,” SNC corporate vice Mark Sirangelo said. “What we are structuring today is a long-term understanding of how we could work together; that is, the exploration of technologies, the exploration of missions, the exploration of how cooperation might help.” The agreements include no explicit exchange of funds between the agencies and SNC.

There is a “basket” of technologies ESA and DLR have that could have a role in Dream Chaser. Sirangelo noted that Europe has considerable experience in lifting body designs and reentry systems that could be useful for Dream Chaser. ESA’s Elena Grifoni Winters said at the announcement that ESA could offer expertise on docking systems and crew displays. Johann-Dietrich Wörner, chairman of the executive board of DLR, said that they may also have materials that could be used in Dream Chaser design that are lighter than what SNC is currently using.

While SNC is pursuing Dream Chaser to serve the International Space Station crew transportation market for NASA, Sirangelo said that they see Dream Chaser as a more “utilitarian” vehicle that can serve a range of applications. “What we’ve been doing, and actively working towards, is being able to understand and develop new customers and markets to that,” he said.

SNC has a strong motivation to seek additional partnerships and customers. While Boeing and SpaceX received “full” CCiCap awards, valued at about $450 million each, SNC received an award about half that amount, which puts it at a potential disadvantage in the upcoming CCtCap competition. Sirangelo said SNC never intended to rely solely on NASA for Dream Chaser development or as a customer. “We have made our own major investment in the program,” he said of SNC. “We fully expect the program is going to continue, it’s now at a level of maturity where that’s possible” without NASA support.

That could include closer ties with Europe in the future, even featuring the launch of Dream Chaser spacecraft on a Ariane 5. “It’s even possible, with somme minor changes to the Dream Chaser vehicle, to launch it in within the fairing” of an Ariane 5 ME version, Wörner said.

SNC will continue its Dream Chaser promotional activity after today’s CCtCap deadline. On Thursday, SNC will announce “expansion plans” for its Dream Chaser program at the Kennedy Space Center at a briefing that features representatives of Space Florida, Lockheed Martin, and United Launch Alliance, as well as SNC and NASA. There had been speculation SNC would lease a Space Shuttle-era facility at KSC to support Dream Chaser work, although according to one local reporter, all three Orbiter Processing Facility hangars are already claimed by Boeing for its CST-100 commercial crew vehicle and X-37B military spaceplane.