by Mary Bennett
In the barren New Mexico desert, just over two miles east of the Jornada del Muerto (the Way of the Dead, and so named by the Spanish Conquistadors crossing this 100 mile stretch of desert connecting their outposts) Virgin Galactic has built a Spaceport for its suborbital adventures and its tenants – some of whom are already carrying out experimental flights.
X does mark the spot
The craft, beginning its climb to space in the skies over their Californian Mojave desert test base, and accelerating to some 900mph – disintegrated, killing one test pilot and severely injuring another.
SS2’s failure occurred at around 59,000ft (11.18m/18km). This is well short of both the 264,000ft (50m /80.46km) altitude at which the USAF and NASA confer Astronaut status, and the geophysical definition of space at 320,083ft which is (62.137 miles /100km) and known as the Kármán line1.
Virgin Galactic’s website asserts that SS2 “is designed to reach altitudes above both these thresholds” and the company intends to take its astronauts up to 360,000ft (68miles/110km).
“While not a NASA mission, the pain of this tragedy will be felt by all the men and women who have devoted their lives to exploration. Space flight is incredibly difficult, and we commend the passion of all in the space community who take on risk to push the boundaries of human achievement.”
A sentiment somewhat at odds with the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety (IAASS). Critical of SS2’s rocket engine as well as of the safety protocols surrounding its testing, the IAASS engineers had contacted both Virgin Galactic and the US authorities over their concerns.
Virgin’s October 31 2014 accident came only three days after the Orbital Sciences Corporation’s (known as Orbital) Antares rocket exploded above the launch pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) site at Wallops Island, Virginia. NASA described this incident as a ‘mishap’, perhaps downplaying the severity of the incident due to the fact that unlike Virgin Galactic, Orbital was under contract to NASA.
However, the agency did take the opportunity to point out the ‘incredible difficulty’ of using rockets.
“Launching rockets is an incredibly difficult undertaking, and we learn from each success and each setback. Today's launch attempt will not deter us from our work to expand our already successful capability to launch cargo from American shores to the International Space Station.”NASA’s contrived acronyms and all previous rocket disasters aside, two events within three days begs the question as to whether it might be time to rethink how we actually propel ourselves into space, other than via the 'blood and thunder' methods adopted since WW2, for once again rocket elements were the critical factor in the Antares mishap.
In response to these assertions, the Russians pointed out that the Americans had made ‘significant modifications’ to the original design and by transforming it from an NK-33 into an AJ-26 turned it from a reliable engine into a ‘test’ engine not yet proven to be of flight status.
Rutan’s company would not have been testing these rocket engines if Branson’s company was not dedicated to getting out into space. The much-lauded fraternity of space explorers does not look good when seen through this lens. Some six years later, Branson had perhaps understood this point when he modified his attitude slightly (but not entirely) during an interview with journalist Jon Ronson concerning the Virgin Galactic project, and published in The Guardian on February 21 2014.
“The focus was on safety, on recurring cost, and asking the question: When we're done with this, if it worked, could it lead right into flying the public? Could it be safe? I don't think that's been done to go to orbit.”Yet the results of the enquiry into the July 26 2007 accident would contradict both men. It was found that the workers involved did not have adequate training for the job they were undertaking and that Scaled had breached five specific health and safety rules for which it was fined over $25,000. None of the experts consulted got to the bottom of the cause of the accident, and the relatives of the men who died in 2007 were told that it had been a ‘one in half a million accident’ – inferring perhaps that it was so abnormal as to be completely unpredictable, and therefore unavoidable.
Scaled made little public comment other than to claim ignorance as to the dangers of Nitrous Oxide and continued using it when rocket motor testing resumed in 2009.
And although officially retired, Rutan also spoke to Jon Ronson and was even prepared to talk about the N2O accident. Burt said that ‘a combination of some very unusual things’ had occurred during ‘a very routine test’. He made a point of volunteering to Ronson that Scaled had not distanced itself from the people involved:
“…We wrapped ourselves in the families. We told them the truth from the start. None of them sued us. Each of those families is a friend of the company. And that has a lot to say about something that I'm most proud of in my career, and that is how to run a business from an ethical standpoint."
|SS2 Concept – Virgin Galactic
As a result of the ‘routine nomenclature’ and also as a result of being well managed by the Virgin media teams, that tragic incident didn't create quite the media furore of this latest Virgin Galactic Halloween disaster.
So when Richard Branson again played down the implications of the second major disaster to hit his Virgin project – he initially explained away the SS2 October 2014 failure as ‘a serious anomaly’ – one has to wonder when public relations, damage limitation and the morphing of serious engineering issues into ‘the Adventures of Jules Verne on Steroids’ will stop masking the very real problems of rocketry? Not anytime soon would seem to be the answer.
“The basic idea is to inject a liquid oxidizer into a fuel grain that consists only of fuel, and that cannot sustain combustion on its own. The motor is controlled (throttled up and down or shut off) by controlling the flow of liquid oxidizer into the combustion chamber. Typically the combustion chamber is a long cylinder lined with a fuel composed of hydrocarbons (HTPB, kerosene, plastics of various types, amongst many other possibilities)."
Hybrid Rocket Motor – Jonny Dyer
“The motor ran rough, shaking the ship due to the uneven burning of the rubber. On one flight, the pilot heard a loud bang and feared the ship’s tail had been blown off. It turned out to be a chunk of rubber that had shot out the nozzle. The tail was still there.”Critic’s Corner
N2O HTPB rubber burn and then it blew up, killing everyone.
Branson asserted that the rubber fuel is not toxic, while a serving
NASA astronaut (who therefore has to be nameless) has observed that
burning rubber at 50,000ft is toxic for the environment, and that using
Nitrous Oxide is in any case, dangerous.
The executive director of IAASS and former head of safety at the European Space Agency Tommaso Sgobba said that representatives of Virgin Galactic would not attend IAASS meetings, there had been no independent oversight, the company declined to have its rocket design peer-reviewed and refused to share information with industry experts outside the company.
All of these circumstances meant that in Sgobba’s opinion, as he had been saying for some years, there was an accident waiting to happen.
However, there were to be no more test flights to iron out the several single point failures within the SS1 systems as Rutan’s financier Paul Allen had accepted the offer from the Smithsonian to include SS1 in its permanent exhibition, and it was immediately retired from active service. That meant that after the XPrize, when Virgin Galactic was in the frame and everything was changing, there was no incremental change up to SS2 – it was one giant leap, for a machine.
Side view of SS1 – the rocket motor occupies 2/3rds the length of the fuselage – Scaled Composites
Doug Messier also writes that in 2009 when testing began again after the 2007 accident:
“The hybrid engine just didn’t scale very well. The larger the engine became, the more vibrations and oscillations it produced. As engineers struggled to find a solution, Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic quietly began work on alternative motor designs.”
“Virgin Galactic and its partner firm Scaled Composites said they would switch from using a rubber-based solid fuel burned in a stream of nitrous oxide, [N2O/HTPB] which had caused engine instabilities in earlier test flights, to a plastic-based solid fuel called thermoplastic polyamide also burned in nitrous oxide. It was claimed the new fuel would be more reliable and more powerful.” [emphasis added]Indeed, Virgin Galactic expected to gain a fivefold altitude increase from its new fuel grain and thus achieve the 360,000ft/ 70m/110km mark).
“The failure of the hybrid to scale led to another problem. SpaceShipTwo had already been designed and built. The dimensions of the ship, the size of the passenger and crew cabin, the center of gravity…all those were already set. So, engineers now had to fit an engine within those parameters that could still get the vehicle into space. This is the reverse of how rocket planes are typically designed. Engineers figure out the engine first and then build the ship around what it can do.”
A fact with which Brian Binnie, former a test pilot for Scaled on SS1 agreed. He left Scaled in April 2014 to join XCOR*, a company using a liquid fuel system. At a meeting of the Explorer’s Club on October 25 2014 Binnie explained that the hold ups at SS2 were due to scaling issues, adding that “In nature, the size of the heart organ scales along a precise curve, from a rabbit to a lion to an elephant. But the design of the SpaceShipTwo rocket motor was not 'on the curve'."
Stu Witt, ex US Navy fighter pilot and CEO of Mojave Air and Space Port, while welcoming the Virgin Galactic project for its flamboyant potential to turn around the space industry, and not least put his outfit on the map, also observed that scaling up directly from SS1 to SS2 was risky; he compared it to going from building the Kitty Hawk to building a DC3 in a single step.
This ‘without me’ perhaps put into context when one learns that by July 2007 Rutan was deep into negotiating the sale of the 60% share of Scaled and (disaster notwithstanding) on 27 August he closed the deal with aviation giant Northrop Grumman, owner of the remaining 40% of Scaled since 2000. Scaled effectively became the Northrop Grumman’s advanced development programs (ADP) base. Which is somewhat poetic, since Rutan, who went from President to Chief Technical Officer, had a management style modelled on the 14 rules of Kelly Johnson, founder of Lockheed Martin’s own ADP unit ‘Skunk Works’.
In that same 2006 interview Will Whitehorn (then President of Virgin Galactic) is quoted as saying:
"I don't believe Sir Richard would have shown the amazing vision he had to back the risk capital in SpaceshipTwo's early development phase, if it had not been Burt and Scaled behind the XPrize-winning vehicle [SS1] on which our beautiful commercial vehicles are based."Which is not quite the same thing.
“Committees, with no experience beyond their own specialties, would make more and more future decisions, the trouble was that they never did anything completely wrong, but they never did anything brilliant either.”
Taking the analogy to his spaceship enterprise is not difficult. Author Tom Bower, writing in Branson, Behind the Mask (admittedly there is no love lost between Branson and Bower) thought that appointing his top media mogul Will Whitehorn as President of Virgin Galactic, a man with no engineering qualifications, made the point.
Scrolling back to 2010, the year after the resumption of hybrid engine tests, there was a significant changing of the guard – at both Virgin Galactic and Scaled. On December 23 2010 and somewhat overlooked by the media in the run up to Christmas, Virgin Galactic quietly announced that media whizz Will Whitehorn (with the Virgin Group since 1987 and President of Virgin Galactic since 2004) was leaving ‘to concentrate on other business interests’.
This announcement sounds very much like a variation of the politician’s ‘leaving to spend more time with his family’. Whitehorn would be replaced by Whitesides. Having been appointed as full time CEO in 2010, George Whitesides would take up the role of President in January 2011.
This Virgin Galactic announcement came hot on the heels of the November 2010 announcement from Scaled Composites stating that Burt Rutan would be retiring in 2011. Given the issues over the fuel mix for SS2, the fact that the press release on Space.com was dated November 5th – the anniversary of Guy Fawkes' failed gunpowder plot to blow up the British Houses of Parliament – was a nice touch. As was the date of Burt’s actual retirement to north Idaho. It was announced on Space.com on April 1st 2011 – April Fool’s day.
Orbital Sciences Corporation and Scaled Composites. keeping it in the family, and as it turns out, the plans for this hefty start-up of a “private orbital space platform business” were already drawn up – guess when? In 2010, the year before its public launch. To assume that Burt has fully retired from designing aircraft of any sort, might indeed be somewhat foolish.
Burt Rutan’s philosophy is that the best ideas come from the collaborative efforts of small, closely-knit project teams (SkunkWorks rule no.3) and an environment unconstrained by adversity to risk. From this it follows that when he is credited with having built SS2, Burt Rutan is the first to say that it was actually Jim Tighe, Chief Aeronautical Engineer at Scaled who should get the credit for its design.
Rutan thought Tighe to be a better engineer than himself. So how could it be that that on September 26 2014, a month before the Halloween test flight, to the shock and disbelief of many within the industry, Jim Tighe, with over a decade at Scaled, left his job with only two weeks notice? Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that having built the SS2 to one specification it was then necessary to start over – due to that fuel change. Doug Messier had reported in June 2014:
“SS2 has undergone modifications over the last five months, including the installation of tanks in the wings, sources report. One tank will hold methane, which will be used when the nitrous oxide-nylon engine is fired to ensure a proper burn. The other tank will hold helium, which will be injected at the end of the burn to ensure a smoother shutdown, sources say.” [emphasis added]… and the perimeter fence
These additional tanks, (using fuels not generally mentioned when discussing the new hybrid system) underline the fact that there were issues with the burn and probably vibrational issues as a result. Given the tragic results of the first powered flight using this new fuel cocktail, test pilot Brian Binnie’s decision to leave in April 2014 makes even more sense. It also makes sense of the many rumours that Jim Tighe’s decision to leave was due to his powerlessness to stop flight tests going ahead prematurely. Had he been obliged to modify his original design (built around an engine in the orthodox manner) in order to accommodate the new N2O thermo-polyamide rocket fuel system – which can’t have been performing satisfactorily otherwise there would have been no need for those extra fuels and thus adding tanks – in the wings. And if Tighe was unhappy with this outcome and unable to make himself heard, who can blame him for leaving?
The swiftness of his departure surely sent a red alert about SS2’s condition. Or perhaps not. It seemed that no one flinched when, from within Virgin Galactic the Vice President for Safety, Jon Turnipseed, left in December 2013 and Thomas Markusic the VP of Propulsion left in January 2014. In the light of the additional modifications to the fuels and the wings their departures make sense as well.
The Three Ps
Given the positions that these departing men occupied, and taken together with Burt Rutan’s philosophy, as well as observation on committees, it could be that the decision to bring in house the further development of SS2’s rocket fuel system was considered ill-advised. With Branson slipping backwards in his own schedules one must ask if the pressure to launch was also considered unacceptably risky by these men?
If the departure of three/four senior executives from an outfit trying to achieve suborbital flights (so nowhere very much in terms of space travel) in the last few months of 2014 were not linked to the ramifications of that decision to change fuel systems – then it is all the more remarkable that together with the earlier departures of PR man Whitehorn and Chief Technical Engineer Rutan those who had left the company were in charge of Propulsion, Safety and Aerodynamics together with a pilot who had to sit on top of the fuel.
would be nice to think that their departures were a tangible sign of
the necessity for complete conceptual renewal in the domain of
Propulsion, Protection and Performance before anyone else is killed. It
certainly leads to reflection on the roots of this Halloween disaster.
Noting that the rocket fuel systems were changed and the casings reconfigured in part due to engine combustion instabilities, could it be that the October 31 accident is related the Pogo effect? NASA experienced the Pogo problem with Saturn V launches. An Apollo 10 crew member Gene Cernan described a Saturn V launch as ‘absolutely scary’. At ignition the crew were buffeted by vibrations which rifled their way vertically up through the booster. Next came the sharp jolt of the S-II second stage, which almost propelled them head-first into Charlie Brown’s instrument panel, "… and then the first worrisome signs of ‘pogo’ arose."
Pogo was an intense, low-frequency longitudinal oscillation, which rippled up through the body of the Saturn rocket, causing it to ‘bounce’ violently, like a giant pogo stick. The ignition of the Saturn’s second stage, the S-II, came with a noticeable wham, which slammed the astronauts back into their seats.
“But the pogo stayed with us, worse than ever, as another million pounds of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen… burned hot and hard for seven minutes and we accelerated with breathtaking speed."This acceleration was accompanied by disturbing moans and creaks from the rocket, as its metal strained under excessive pogo forces. Stafford, Young, and Cernan could feel the effect, 20 stories beneath them, but could see nothing. Had the pogo damaged their spacecraft?”
And crew member Thomas Stafford recalled that: “The engineers had shaved 20,000 pounds of metal out of the S-IC, making the booster walls more flexible and more prone to pogo. Also, there was a ground stabilization bar inside the cockpit that connected our crew couches to the rear bulkhead. It was supposed to be removed before launch, but somebody forgot. The bar magnified the pogo!”
Shake it all up
Admittedly the Saturn V was a good bit more powerful than either SS1 or SS2. But even the smaller two-stage configuration of the Saturn V, used in May 1973 to take Skylab into orbit, suffered from such powerful oscillations generated within the compression chamber that it resulted in the partial destruction of Skylab.
The SS2 engines were found to be intact at the crash site which makes the pogo problem an even more likely candidate for its disintegration. If, as a result of firing the SS2 engines to achieve the desired thrust, oscillations were set up within the combustion chamber resulting in vibrations which destroyed the integrity of the structure itself, these same vibrations could have also affected the feathering system’s mechanics. Especially since there were fuel tanks within the wings.
This problem of oscillation or engine instability doesn’t alter the fact that Nitrous Oxide is a dangerous fuel, and not esteemed by rocket scientists as an oxidizer, I emphasise that this pogo hypothesis is based on previous events in the world of rocketry and the experiences of Rutan’s spaceplane test pilots – and it can only be speculation until all the necessary investigations into the SS2 disaster are completed (which might well take a year).
Enter the NTSB
My reservations in this regard are not upheld by The National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB). It has stated that until all the data is collected no conclusions could be drawn as to the cause of this accident, yet within days of this SS2 Halloween Day disaster, the NTSB did not practice what it so devoutly preaches when it strongly implied that the co-pilot Michael Alsbury had made an error resulting in the premature ‘feathering’ of the wing system.
This statement was enough to provoke Dr. Klaus Siebold, an experienced pilot and flight instructor, and father of the surviving pilot Peter Siebold, to give an interview to the British press which was published on the November 8, three days before NTSB posted an update of their preliminary investigation.
Dr. Siebold stated that the systems as they were designed precluded the possibility of the pilot error imputed to Michael Alsbury, and that if the disintegration of the ship was eventually attributed to an issue with the switching system – as already inferred by NTSB – it had to be a mechanical error not a pilot error. He added “It’s really irresponsible for the NTSB to suggest a possible explanation for the accident with months of investigation still to come.”
|Feathered re-entry – Virgin Galactic
Virgin Galactic had copied the NTSB stating that:
"The NTSB indicated that the lock/unlock lever was pulled prematurely based on recorded speed at the time, and they have suggested that subsequent aero- dynamic forces then deployed the feathering mechanism, which resulted in the in-flight separation of the wings and vehicle.”
The feather system lever protocols had been tested in flight and behaved perfectly. This statement from Virgin Galactic infers blame on the pilot since it does not make it clear that not one, but two separate actions were required to result in the feathering system being activated.
Then, perhaps covering all bases, it infers that the second lever (which actually deploys the feather system) moved all by itself under the influence of pressures within the cabin. Which is either magic or a serious mechanical failure.
Except that ‘pressures within the cabin’ can be translated as Pogo.
Damage limitation – again…
Later, and still prior to interviewing Peter Siebold, Christopher Hart the NTSB’s acting chairman would state: “This was what we would call an uncommanded feather, which means the feather occurred without the feather lever being moved into the feather position.” So inferring blame on the deceased co-pilot was somewhat unnecessary – but it did buy time, and perhaps in the same vein, immediately after this accident, Sir Richard Branson sticking to his tried and tested mode of distancing himself and Virgin Galactic from trouble, made things worse indicating that he did not really know Michael Alsbury. When images of him with Alsbury emerged on YouTube he was obliged to reconfigure his sentences in that regard.
Configuring sentences was at a premium however, when he was interviewed by John Snow of Channel 4 News (UK) on November 3 2014. John Snow asked if he was passing blame for the accident onto the manufacturers of the spaceship. Barely able to string two words together Branson said: “I’ve certainly never dumped blame on anybody,” citing the NTSB as being those in charge of making the eventual decision as to the cause of the accident. He then called Scaled Composites, Scaled Deposits – no doubt the matter of all those celebrities’ $250,000 deposits was uppermost in his mind. When asked about the departure of key people from his project and the criticisms of the IASS, unable to deny the facts of either matter, Branson instead reproached John Snow for the very insulting tone of his questions, and waffled replies that did not address the questions asked by Snow.
By November 9 we were back in familiar damage limitation territory when his President of Virgin Galactic, George Whiteside, made this statement on CNN Money:
“We’re heartened by the findings around the, er the conditions of the motor and I think that umm, if it does become, er focused on er, human procedures then there, er, will be straightforward ways in which we can deal with that … make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
XS-1 concept – Northrop Grumman
Stratolaunch Systems say it is in for the long haul, developing innovative space technologies slowly and carefully, and it doesn't dismiss eventually addressing human space flight – which implies that either suborbital flights are not for now, as inferred by Branson’s SS2, or that this company is looking to develop technologies for going much further than Branson’s suborbital aspirations. [emphasis added]
Thus far, Virgin Galactic is not involved with Stratolaunch, except perhaps in the small, but important matter of airports. During the build of Spaceport America the runway originally designed at 10,000ft was extended to 12,000ft. Costing $37million, it is just the right size to take the Stratolaunch System, when Scaled Composites have built it.
Atlantis at KSC
What with naming the Space Shuttle Atlantis and the various other semi-opaque references to mythological themes redolent throughout the space industry – rather than the usual ‘Caycean et al’ connotations of a sunken continent mid-Atlantic here on Earth, could it be that NASA is here seeking to invoke an association between a lost civilisation and the red planet?
Rotan’s pyramid house – Popular Mechanics 1989
However, before we get to Mars, there are many medical issues with sending human beings into space that are not helped at all by these 'blood and thunder' methods, should they even survive lift off using risky rocket fuels.
Whether it was actually published or whether it was completely censored when Popular Science magazine was uploaded onto the web by Google Books (Google is very involved in space matters) is unclear. What is certain is that when this very same article was published again in the US magazine Popular Mechanics, May 11 1989 under the title 'Spaceport America', (yes, Sir Richard) – all of these sections were missing.
|May 14 2014 Russia’s Tyurin, America’s Mastrocchio of Expedition 38/39 carried from Soyuz after 188 days in space
– compare picture below
Apollo 11 astronauts walking totally unaided following space flight
Spaceport America designed by Foster + Partners – Galactic Imagery
He added that they did not know how to do it, or how much gravity to use, but they did know it would be very, very expensive to create gravity systems to sustain astronauts in space.
Surely it is better to invest in gravity generation research and work on the science towards achieving that end, rather than illogically continuing with equally expensive technologies which are not fit for purpose for journeys anywhere much beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.
It would appear that a ‘cone of silence’ sill exists, and that information is still manipulated and/or censored as we continue to play with rockets, unable to rethink our way into space, for the fear of destroying all space history that has gone before. Why can’t we draw a line in the sand, recognise that the way things were done yesterday is not how we must do them today?
- If Mars has been designated by NASA as THE emotive target, designed to keep the space program alive in the minds of the public;
- If we don’t have the courage to go for a complete
rethink, work out how to keep human beings alive and invest in the means
to do so (which might just be too politically challenging);
- If the current experimental flights run by the tenants of Virgin Galactic ‘s spaceport cease;
- And if SS2 doesn’t work out as expected, then…
- That Branson named the crashed SS2 the Virgin SpaceShip ‘Enterprise’, VSSE, after the Star Trek TV series – hinting at great travels across the galaxy from planet to planet;
- Given the difficulties that private companies are having even getting to suborbital;
- Given the difficulties in maintaining human bio-organisms off the planet at any distance;
- And given the risks incurred in shuttling to LEO
with the present technology, then any boasts of imminent interplanetary
human spaceflight must be extremely wide of the mark. Neither NASA, nor
its pals in the private sector (including Stratolaunch Systems and
Virgin Galactic) are going to be able to make safe and time-effective
interplanetary human spaceflight happen with conventionally powered
rocket technology – hybrid or otherwise.
Spaceport America relative to military sites
Spaceport America – Chris Chrisman
"A kind of astronauts' training school, if you will, in some place like Cancun [think New Mexico]. It would be like a regular two-week vacation with great food and things to do at night. It's kind of like a ride at Magic Mountain... It isn't just a roller coaster ride. You are officially added to the list of astronauts.”
Or, as Desert Exposure has it, “If you hurry, you might be able to get the Mars T-shirt concession at Spaceport America”.
Or, Wake Up!
Surely the time has come when we should seriously consider this very public accident to Virgin Galactic’s SS2 as a wake up call; stop pretending that a space plane is a real ‘space ship’; stop pretending that we know how to undertake human space travel, and start learning to build the pro-gravity machines that almost everyone says are going to be needed some day.
that curiosity still fires the human spirit – as the Mars Rovers would
indicate, and that we really do want to send human beings through and
beyond the Van Allen belts, to put our feet where our probes have been
on the surface of the Red planet, why don’t we get started on these new
Aulis Online, January 2015
Update August 2015 – Final NTSB report, associated articles and commentary
1. The Kármán line at 62.137119 miles above Earth (100KM) is the official start of space, However, the USAF & NASA conferred astronaut status on their X-15 pilots as their flights were essentially piercing space at 50 miles up.
2. Although technically ‘privately owned’ many of these companies are sustained by contracts for government projects run through NASA or DARPA and the like.
3. Rutan’s founded Scaled Composites in 1982, At the same year that Beech Aircraft Corp. (then owned by Raytheon) contracted for the Beechcraft Starship, this was built by 1985, whereupon Raytheon purchased the Scaled. Then sold it back to Rutan in 1988. He then sold it to Wyman-Gordon but when this firm was in turn 1999/2000 swallowed up by Precision Castparts, Rutan with nine other investors including Northrop Grumman with 40% of the stake, bought Scaled back. Northrop Grumman intended to acquire the company completely by July 20 2007. The accident of July 26 did not affect this deal and Northrop Grumman fully acquired Scaled on August 24 2007.
4. "Beam us up Beardie" from Private Eye issue No.1374 September 5 2014
5. Sierra Nevada Corporation has contracts with private space companies, the US Dept. of Defense and NASA – its HQ is in the aptly named Sparks, Nevada.6. In an iterview with The Guardian 2008 Griffin stated that an opportunity to push on to Mars by extending the Apollo program was squandered by a change in focus to Shuttle and space station programs that only reached orbit: "I spent some time analysing what we could have done had we used the budgets we received to explore the capabilities inherent in the Apollo hardware after it was built. The short answer is we would have been on Mars 15 or 20 years ago, instead of circling endlessly in low-Earth orbit."
*On 24 December 2014 XCOR announced that in 2016 it would be flying a single passenger into suborbital flight for around $95,000. The side cut of the XCOR reveals the same ratio of fuselage to fuel as the SS1.
Timeline of events
July 26 2007 First major accident at Mojave test centre. Three die, three seriously injured.
April 2013 Branson says his 2012 estimate was optimistic – hopes to fly in SS2 by December 2013. In Adelaide, Australia a month later, he states that Virgin Galactic will achieve its commercial passenger aims ‘very soon’.