After Richard Branson delivered some inspiring words from his seat aboard SpaceShipTwo Unity, he unbuckled himself and started to float around the vehicle’s cabin along with three other Virgin Galactic employees. Reaching an apogee of 86 kilometers (53 miles), the passengers enjoyed four minutes of weightlessness during the July 2021 flight that was live-streamed over the Internet to an audience of millions. After years of delays, SpaceShipTwo had finally demonstrated it was capable of taking paying customers to the edge of space. As far as victories go — it was pretty impressive.
Yet despite the spectacle, weeks and months went by without an announcement about when commercial flights of the world’s first “spaceline” would finally begin. Now, nearly two years after Branson’s flight, Unity has flown again. Except instead of carrying the first group of customers, it performed the sort of un-powered test flight that Virgin Galactic hasn’t performed since 2017. Clearly, something didn’t go to plan back then.
The company is being as tight-lipped as ever, saying only that this test flight was necessary to “evaluate the performance of the spaceship…following the modification period.” The exact nature of these modifications is unclear, but for some hints, we could look at the New Yorker article from September 2021. It alleged that, unwilling to derail Branson’s highly publicized flight, Unity’s pilots decided not to abort their ascent despite several warning lights in the cockpit alerting them that the vehicle’s trajectory was deviating from the norm. Virgin Galactic later denied their characterization of the event, but the fact remains that Unity did leave its designated airspace during the flight, and that the Federal Aviation Administration grounded the spacecraft until an investigation into the mishap could be completed. Continue reading “Virgin Galactic Cautiously Returns To Flight”→
But while the rocket itself was lost, the New Shepard’s automated abort systems were able to push the capsule H. G. Wells away from the fireball, saving the dozens of scientific experiments which had been loaded onto the un-crewed vehicle. While there’s been no public word yet on the condition of these experiments, it’s reasonable to assume that at least some portion of them can be re-flown in the future — a fact that will likely come as a great relief to the researchers who designed them. It will be interesting to see who picks up the tab for the do-over flight; while launch insurance is a must-have for billion dollar satellites, it seems unlikely these small suborbital experiments would have been covered under a similar policy.
We’re also still in the dark about what caused the in-flight breakup of NS3, other than the fact that the engine was clearly sputtering in the seconds before it blew apart. This could be a sign that the engine’s nominal fuel-to-oxidizer ratio was faltering, or perhaps even indicative of foreign debris becoming dislodged and burning in the combustion chamber. But really, without official word from Blue Origin, it’s impossible to say what happened.
This is especially true when you consider that we’re talking about a vehicle that’s pushing the envelope to begin with. Remember, the New Shepard is a reusable booster, and NS3 is specifically a veteran of eight flights — with all but one of them taking the booster above the 100 kilometer altitude, which is generally accepted to be the boundary of space.
For those worried that celebrities and assorted millionaires will no longer have access to space, fear not. Blue Origin’s crewed flights have flown exclusively on the newer NS4 and its associated capsule First Step. This does however mean that Blue Origin no longer has a spare booster on which to fly commercial payloads, potentially putting into jeopardy any semblance of scientific value the program may have had.
When Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk reached the boundary of space aboard the first crewed flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule earlier today, it marked the end of a journey she started 60 years ago. In 1961 she became the youngest member of what would later become known as the “Mercury 13”, a group of accomplished female aviators that volunteered to be put through the same physical and mental qualification tests that NASA’s Mercury astronauts went through. But the promising experiment was cut short by the space agency’s rigid requirements for potential astronauts, and what John Glenn referred to in his testimony to the Committee on Science and Astronautics as the “social order” of America at the time.
To hear founder Richard Branson tell it, the first operational flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo has been 18 months out since at least 2008. But a series of delays, technical glitches, and several tragic accidents have continually pushed the date back to the point that many have wondered if it will ever happen at all. The company’s glacial pace has only been made more obvious when compared with their rivals in the commercial spaceflight field such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, which have made incredible leaps in bounds in the last decade.
But now, at long last, it seems like Branson’s suborbital spaceplane might finally start generating some income for the fledgling company. Their recent successful test flight, while technically the company’s third to reach space, represents an important milestone on the road to commercial service. Not only did it prove that changes made to Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Unity in response to issues identified during last year’s aborted flight were successful, but it was the first full duration mission to fly from Spaceport America, the company’s new operational base in New Mexico.
The data collected from this flight, which took pilots Frederick “CJ” Sturckow and Dave Mackay to an altitude of 89.23 kilometers (55.45 miles), will be thoroughly reviewed by the Federal Aviation Administration as part of the process to get the vehicle licensed for commercial service. The next flight will have four Virgin Galactic employees join the pilots, to test the craft’s performance when loaded with passengers. Finally, Branson himself will ride to the edge of space on Unity’s final test flight as a public demonstration of his faith in the vehicle.
If all goes according to plan, the whole process should be wrapped up before the end of the year. At that point, between the government contracts Virgin Galactic has secured for testing equipment and training astronauts in a weightless environment, and the backlog of more than 600 paying passengers, the company should be bringing in millions of dollars in revenue with each flight.
If you are a certain age, you probably remember the promise of supersonic transports. The Concorde took less than 4 hours to go across the Atlantic, but it stopped flying in 2003 and ended commercial supersonic passenger flights But back in the 1970s, we thought the Concorde would give way not to older technology, but to newer. After all, man had just walked on the moon and suborbital transports could make the same trip in 30 minutes and — according to Elon Musk — go between any two points on the Earth in an hour or less. A key component to making suborbital flights as common as normal jet travel is a reasonable engine that can carry a plane to the edge of space. That’s where the UK’s Sabre engine comes into play. Part jet and part rocket, the engine uses novel new technology and two different operating modes to power the next generation of spaceplane. The BBC reports that parts of the new engine will undergo a new phase of testing next month.
The company behind the technology, Reaction Engines, Ltd, uses the engine in an air-breathing jet mode until it hits 5.5 times the speed of sound. Then the same engine becomes a rocket and can propel the vehicle at up to 25 times the speed of sound.
As far as space travel and Kickstarter is concerned, we’ve seen crowdfunding projects for satellites in low earth orbit, impacting the moon, and even a project for a suborbital rocket. This one, though, takes the cake. It’s a gun designed to send very small payloads into space on a suborbital trajectory.
The gun itself is an 8-inch bore, 45-foot long monster of an artillery piece. While the simplest way of shooting something down the length of a barrel would be exploding something in the breech, [Richard] is doing something a little more interesting. He’s broken down the propellent charges so instead of one giant propelling a bullet down a barrel, the projectile is constantly accelerated with a number of smaller charges.
The goal of the Kickstarter is to send a small payload into a suborbital trajectory. Later developments will include putting a small rocket motor in the dart-shaped bullet to insert the payload into an orbit.
This isn’t the first time anyone has attempted to build a gun capable of shooting something into space. The US and Canada DOD built a gun that shot a 180 kg projectile to 180 km altitude. The lead engineer of this project, [Gerald Bull] then went on to work with [Saddam Hussein] to design a supergun that could launch satellites into orbit or shells into downtown Tel Aviv or Tehran. [Bull] was then assassinated by either the US, Israeli, Iranian, British, or Iraqi governments before the gun could be completed.
Two videos from the Kickstarter are below, with a few more details on the project’s webpage