British billionaire Richard Branson on 11 July 2021 soared more than 50 miles above the New Mexico desert aboard his Virgin Galactic rocket plane and safely returned in the vehicle's first fully crewed test flight to space, a symbolic milestone for a venture he started 17 years ago. Branson, one of six Virgin Galactic Holding Inc employees strapped in for the ride, has touted the mission as a precursor to a new era of space tourism, with the company he founded in 2004 poised to begin commercial operations in 2022. The success of the flight also gave the flamboyant entrepreneur bragging rights in a highly publicized rivalry with fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos, the Amazon online retail mogul who had hoped to fly into space first aboard his own space company's rocket. The launch of the VSS Unity passenger rocket plane marked the company's 22nd test flight of its SpaceShipTwo system, and its fourth crewed mission beyond Earth's atmosphere. It was also the first to carry a full complement of space travelers - two pilots and four "mission specialists," Branson among them.
Blue Origin dunked on its competitor, arguing its craft is not really a spaceship. The company of former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos favorably compared its primary craft to the one used by Virgin Galactic. “None of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name,” Blue Origin bragged, referring to the fact that its competitor’s flight altitude only constitutes “space” by some US definitions.
Richard Branson was racing against competitors such as Blue Origin, the space business of Amazon.com Inc founder Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX to bring tourists into space. British billionaire Richard Branson one-upped his rival Jeff Bezos on 01 July 2021, announcing that he too will travel to space – as many as nine days ahead of the Amazon founder. Branson's company Virgin Galactic said in a statement that he would be a "mission specialist" aboard the SpaceShipTwo Unity, which will go to space as early as July 11, "pending weather and technical checks." If the schedule holds, Branson would make it to the cosmos before Bezos, who said he would travel to space aboard the New Shepard launch vehicle belonging to his company Blue Origin on July 20. The two billionaires have founded rival companies to take tourists on short flights to suborbital space. Branson "will evaluate the private astronaut experience and will undergo the same training, preparation and flight as Virgin Galactic's future astronauts.
More than 600 people from 58 countries, including actor Leonardo DiCaprio and pop star Justin Bieber, have paid or put down deposits to fly on one of Virgin’s suborbital flights. Some of Virgin Galactic’s ticket holders have been waiting over 14 years for their trip.
A 90-minute flight, which allows passengers to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the Earth’s curvature, costs $250,000. The company expected that price would initially increase before going down.
After he founded the company in 2004, Branson’s ambitious timeline for taking customers into space suffered delays and a fatal setback when the original SpaceShipTwo crashed on a test flight in 2014 that killed the co-pilot and seriously injured the pilot.
Richard Branson's space company, Virgin Galactic, has been granted an operating licence to fly the world's first passenger rocketship for paying tourists, the Federal Aviation Administration said 01 August 2016. The new ship, dubbed Unity, was rolled out of its hangar for its first taxi test at the Mojave Air and Space Port. The company has not yet announced a date for the start of passenger flights but is selling tickets for a ride aboard SpaceShipTwo for US$250,000 a seat. Commercial service is not expected to debut before 2017. About 700 people have put down deposits for rides.
The unprecedented licence, pending the completion of further safety tests, covers all operations of Virgin Galactic's six-passenger, two-pilot SpaceShipTwo vehicle, including commercial passenger service, which according to FAA spokesman Hank Price is contingent on "certain terms and conditions" first being met. Those requirements include verification of vehicle hardware and software "in an operational flight environment," the FAA wrote. The FAA, which oversees U.S. airline service and general aviation, is also the chief regulatory body for commercial spaceflight in the United States.
Scaled Composites, the winner of the ground-breaking Ansari X Prize, and the team that made the first non-governmental manned-rocket flight to suborbital space, unveiled its vehicle on April 18, 2003.
SpaceShipOne is a three-person vehicle designed to be air-launched at an altitude of 15,240 meters (50,000 feet) from a carrier aircraft, called White Knight. On April 1, 2004, FAA/AST issued the first commercial RLV mission-specific launch license (LRLS 04-067) to Scaled. Including the September 29 and October 4 Ansari X Prize-winning flights, SpaceShipOne successfully completed five licensed flights in 2004.
On September 27, 2004, Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin Group announced Virgin Galactic, a space tourism company, will use the technology developed in the creation of SpaceShipOne to carry paying passengers into space. Virgin Galactic expects to launch its first flight around 2007, with full com-mercial service by the end of the decade. The spaceflight experience as currently envisioned will last approximately 6 days, including preflight training, social events, dinners with astronauts and guest speakers, and luxury accommodations. Flight into suborbital space will allow customers to experience the acceleration of a rocket flight, to feel weightlessness, and to see the Earth from space. In addition, 7-UP , the official beverage of the Ansari X Prize, announced plans to offer consumers the first free ticket into space aboard a Virgin Galactic craft.
The SS2 reusable suborbital rocket was manufactured in June 2010. Before the 2014 accident flight, SS2 had accumulated 83 hours of flight time while coupled to WK2 and about 6.3 hours of glide and powered flight time while decoupled from WK2. FAA records showed that SS2’s first special airworthiness certificate was issued on June 30, 2010, and that SS2’s most recent special airworthiness certificate was issued on October 1, 2014.
SS2 had a low-wing, twin-tailboom, outboard horizontal tail, and extension-only tricycle landing gear configuration. SS2’s primary airframe structures—the nose, cabin, aft fuselage, wing, feather flap assembly, and horizontal stabilizers—were constructed with composite materials. The aft one-third of the wing surface and the tailbooms comprised the feather flap assembly structure. The aft fuselage contained the rocket motor system and the pylon structure that attached SS2 to WK2.
SS2 was about 60 ft long with a wingspan of about 23 ft, a height of about 15 ft at the tail, and a fuselage diameter of 7.5 ft. At the time of the accident, SS2 had two seats for the pilots, but Scaled designed the vehicle to be configured with six additional forward-facing seats in the cabin (three seats on the left side and three seats on the right side). SS2’s primary flight control system consisted of elevons for pitch and roll control and rudders for yaw control. The electrical system (after release from WK2) was powered by two main battery packs and one emergency battery pack. The pneumatic system consisted of four high-pressure bottles that supplied dry, compressed air to various systems, including the feather system. Two bottles were located in the leading edges of each wing. Telemetry data for the flight control system, the electrical system, and the pneumatic system showed no anomalies before the feather movement.
Scaled developed WK2 and was developing SS2 for Virgin Galactic, which planned to use the vehicles to conduct future commercial space suborbital operations. SS2 was equipped with a feather system that rotated a feather flap assembly with twin tailbooms upward from the vehicle’s normal configuration (0º) to 60º to stabilize SS2’s attitude and increase drag during reentry into the earth’s atmosphere. The feather system included actuators to extend and retract the feather and locks to keep the feather in the retracted position when not in use.
Before Scaled received its experimental permit to conduct rocket-powered test flights for SS2, the company prepared an experimental permit application for the FAA/AST’s review. One of the pertinent regulations relating to the issuance of an experimental permit is 14 CFR 437.55, “Hazard Analysis,” which, among other things, requires the applicant to identify and describe those hazards that could result from human errors. In its SS2 hazard analysis, Scaled did not account for the possibility that a pilot might prematurely unlock the feather system, allowing the feather to extend under conditions that would cause a catastrophic failure of the vehicle structure.
Instead, Scaled assumed that pilots would correctly operate the feather system every time because they would be properly trained through simulator sessions and would follow the normal and emergency procedures for a given situation. However, this accident demonstrated that NTSB Aerospace Accident Report mistakes can occur even with a flight crewmember who had extensive flight test experience and had performed numerous preflight simulations during which the feather was unlocked at the proper speed of 1.4 Mach.
The FAA/AST evaluated Scaled’s SS2 experimental permit applications and granted the initial SS2 permit in May 2012 and the first and second renewals of the permit in May 2013 and May 2014, respectively. After granting the first renewal of the permit, the FAA/AST conducted another review of the SS2 hazard analysis included in Scaled’s application and determined that the hazard analysis did not meet the software and human error requirements of 14 CFR 437.55(a). As a result, in July 2013, the FAA/AST issued a waiver from these hazard analysis requirements for the first renewal of Scaled’s experimental permit.
Scaled did not request the waiver, participate in the waiver evaluation process, or have an opportunity to comment on the waiver before it was issued (except to identify proprietary information that should not be disclosed). In May and October 2014 (as part of the second renewal of Scaled’s SS2 experimental permit and Scaled’s application to modify the permit to reflect changes made to SS2, respectively), the FAA/AST issued additional waivers from the software and human error hazard analysis requirements of section 437.55(a).
The FAA/AST determined that each of the waivers was in the public interest and would not jeopardize public health and safety, safety of property, or US national security and foreign policy interests. The FAA/AST also determined that, even though Scaled’s hazard analysis did not comply with software and human error regulatory requirements, specific mitigations that Scaled had in place would prevent hazards resulting from such errors. However, the FAA/AST issued the waivers without understanding whether the mitigations would adequately protect against a single human error with catastrophic consequences. In addition, the FAA/AST did not determine whether mitigations, other than those intended to protect against human error, were sufficient to ensure public safety.
On October 31, 2014, at 1007:32 Pacific daylight time, the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) reusable suborbital rocket, N339SS, operated by Scaled Composites LLC (Scaled), broke up into multiple pieces during a rocket-powered test flight and impacted terrain over a 5-mile area near Koehn Dry Lake, California. The pilot received serious injuries, and the copilot received fatal injuries. SS2 was destroyed, and no one on the ground was injured as a result of the falling debris. SS2 had been released from its launch vehicle, WhiteKnightTwo (WK2), N348MS, about 13 seconds before the structural breakup. Scaled was operating SS2 under an experimental permit issued by the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) according to the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 437.
After release from WK2 at an altitude of about 46,400 ft, SS2 entered the boost phase of flight. During this phase, SS2’s rocket motor propels the vehicle from a gliding flight attitude to an almost-vertical attitude, and the vehicle accelerates from subsonic speeds, through the transonic region (0.9 to 1.1 Mach), to supersonic speeds. The flight test data card used during the accident flight indicated that the copilot was to unlock the feather during the boost phase when SS2 reached a speed of 1.4 Mach. (The feather was to be unlocked at this point in the flight to mitigate the hazard resulting from a reentry with the feather down due to a lock failure.) However, a forward-facing cockpit camera and flight data showed that the copilot unlocked the feather just after SS2 passed through a speed of 0.8 Mach. Afterward, the aerodynamic and inertial loads imposed on the feather flap assembly were sufficient to overcome the feather actuators, which were not designed to hold the feather in the retracted position during the transonic region. As a result, the feather extended uncommanded, causing the catastrophic structural failure.
The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of this accident was Scaled Composites’ failure to consider and protect against the possibility that a single human error could result in a catastrophic hazard to the SpaceShipTwo vehicle. This failure set the stage for the copilot’s premature unlocking of the feather system as a result of time pressure and vibration and loads that he had not recently experienced, which led to uncommanded feather extension and the subsequent aerodynamic overload and in-flight breakup of the vehicle.
SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity safely and successfully completed her first supersonic, rocket-powered flight on 05 April 2018. After two years of extensive ground and atmospheric testing, the passing of this milestone marks the start of the final portion of Unity’s flight test program. The flight was also significant for Virgin Galactic’s Mojave based, sister manufacturing organization, The Spaceship Company. Unity is the first vehicle to be built from scratch for Virgin Galactic by The Spaceship Company’s talented team of aerospace engineers and technicians.
VSS Unity benefits from all the data and lessons gathered from the test program of her predecessor vehicle, VSS Enterprise. Today’s flight saw an envelope expansion for the program as a whole in terms of rocket burn duration, speed and altitude achieved.
The mated vehicles climbed to a launch altitude of around 46,500ft over the Sierra Nevada Mountains and while pointing back at Mojave, Eve executed a clean release of Unity. After a few seconds, Unity’s rocket motor was brought to life and the pilots aimed the spaceship upwards into an 80 degree climb, accelerating to Mach 1.87 during the 30 seconds of rocket burn. The hybrid (nitrous oxide / HTPB compound) rocket motor, which was designed, built and tested by The Spaceship Company, powered Unity today through the transonic range and into supersonic flight for the first time.
On rocket shutdown, Unity continued an upwards coast to an apogee of 84,271ft before readying for the downhill return. At this stage, the pilots raised the vehicle’s tail booms to a 60 degree angle to the fuselage, into the ‘feathered’ configuration. This unique design feature, which is key to a reliable and repeatable re-entry capability for a winged vehicle, incorporates the additional safety mechanisms adopted after the 2014 VSS Enterprise test flight accident.
A Virgin Galactic rocket plane blasted to the edge of space on 13 December 2018 and returned safely to the California desert, capping off years of difficult testing to become the first US commercial human flight to reach space. Branson’s Virgin Galactic was battling other billionaire-backed ventures, like Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, to be the first to offer suborbital flights to fare-paying tourists.
Virgin’s twin-fuselage carrier airplane holding the SpaceShipTwo passenger spacecraft took off soon after 7 a.m. local time (10 a.m. ET) from the Mojave Air and Space Port, about 90 miles (145 km) north of Los Angeles. The carrier airplane hauled the SpaceShipTwo passenger rocket plane to an altitude of about 45,000 feet (13.7 kms) and released it. Seconds later, SpaceShipTwo fired, catapulting it to at least 50 miles (80.47 km) above Earth, high enough for the pilots, Mark Stucky and Frederick Sturckow, to experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the planet. The reusable SpaceShipTwo craft flew to an altitude of more than 51 miles, marking the first US commercial human flight beyond the atmosphere since the end of America’s shuttle program in 2011.
A Virgin Galactic rocket plane on 22 February 2019 soared to the edge of space with a test passenger for the first time, nudging British billionaire Richard Branson’s company closer to its goal of suborbital flights for space tourists. Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, who will train future space tourists, joined pilots onboard SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity to evaluate the customer experience and cabin. The WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane took off soon after 8 a.m. local time from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. It released the SpaceShipTwo passenger craft at an altitude of about 44,000 feet and then the spaceship was catapulted to 55 miles above Earth.
Towed Glider Air-Launch Concept
Early artist rendering of the Towed Glider Air-Launch Concept, showing the towed glider following rocket launch. A notional tow aircraft is seen clearing the launch area. Early artist rendering of the Towed Glider Air-Launch Concept, showing the towed glider following rocket launch. A notional tow aircraft is seen clearing the launch area.
The 1/3-scale twin-fuselage glider that would be used to validate the flight characteristics of the Towed Glider Air-Launch Concept is pictured with and its DROID tow plane on the ramp at NASA Dryden. NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center is developing a novel rocket-launching technique called the Towed Glider Air-Launch Concept that could significantly reduce the cost and improve the efficiency of sending satellites into orbit.
The idea is to build a relatively inexpensive remotely or optionally piloted glider that will be towed to altitudes approaching 40,000 feet by a large transport aircraft. The glider will carry a booster rocket capable of launching payloads into low Earth orbit.
Engineers continue working trade-offs with launching the rocket either with the glider still in tow, or following release from the tow aircraft. Either way, after the rocket has launched, the glider will return independently of the tow aircraft to its base to be used again.
Gerald Budd, a NASA Dryden business development and towed glider project manager, displayed a 24-foot wingspan, twin fuselage proof-of-concept model of the glider that was constructed in NASA Dryden's model shop during a presentation at the Academy of Model Aeronautics' 15th Annual Expo in Ontario, Calif., in mid-January. The model will fly later this year, towed aloft by one of Dryden's small DROID – for Dryden Remotely Operated Integrated Drone – unmanned aircraft.
Early artist rendering shows the concept of operations of the Towed Glider Air-Launch Concept, beginning with the aero-tow of the glider carrying a rocket booster, launching the rocket, then returning to land independently of the tow aircraft.Early artist rendering shows the concept of operations of the Towed Glider Air-Launch Concept, beginning with the aero-tow of the glider carrying a rocket booster, launching the rocket, then returning to land independently of the tow aircraft. Feasibility analyses done by independent contractors indicate that a performance gain of up to 40 percent may be realized by use of Budd's towed-glider technique over vertical launch of a similar-sized rocket from the ground.
Additionally, air launch of rockets has the potential to lower the cost of placing payloads to orbit through operational efficiencies that are simply not available through vertical ground launch, Budd explained. Cost savings may be as much as 25 percent, based on recent Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency studies.
Historically, air-launched rockets have been carried and dropped from underneath modified, existing aircraft, such as Orbital Sciences' Pegasus rockets that are launched from the firm's modified L-1011 "Stargazer" launch aircraft.
Budd maintains the Towed Glider Air Launch Concept has the potential to realize the operational flexibility of a custom airplane, but without the price tag.
"It's a real-estate problem," said Budd. "You're limited in what you can fit underneath an existing aircraft. Launching off the top of a carrier aircraft is problematic from a safety perspective. Our approach allows for significant payloads to be carried aloft and launched from a purpose-built custom aircraft that is less expensive because of the simplicity of the airframe, having no propulsion system (engines, fuel, etc.), on board," Budd said.
This initial research and development effort is being funded internally by NASA Dryden at Edwards Air Force Base in California, and by NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist. Potential Department of Defense and industry partnerships are being explored.
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