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Author Topic: Virgin Galactic's orbital plans  (Read 16258 times)

Offline FutureSpaceTourist

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Virgin Galactic's orbital plans
« on: October 22, 2010, 07:52:02 pm »
At the dedication event for Spaceport America on Friday, Richard Branson made a surprise statement about VG's orbital ambitions. Jeff Foust's reporting of the event includes the following:

Quote from: http://www.newspacejournal.com/2010/10/22/a-little-extra-at-the-spaceport-america-dedication/
Also during the press conference Branson was asked about orbital vehicle development. That is a long-term goal of the company, but Branson suggested they would try to find ways to accelerate it. “Obviously we want to move on to orbital after we’ve got suborbital under our belts, and maybe even before that,” he said, then mentioned NASA’s commercial crew development program and its request for proposals in the coming months. “Virgin Galactic is going to put forward proposals, and we plan to start work on an orbital program quite quickly.” Branson declined to provide any details on Virgin’s orbital vehicle plans, but said the company would say more in the next three to four months.

It'll be very interesting to see what their orbital concept is and who they'll be working with.

Burt Rutan said for years that he didn't know how to do an orbital system safely. In his view there are three major problems to solve (I don't think he's ever explicitly listed them) and he only had ideas to address one of them. He's dropped hints though that he's been working on it.

Offline blackstar

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Re: Virgin Galactic's orbital plans
« Reply #1 on: October 22, 2010, 08:33:58 pm »
You'd think that they would want to prove that they could do what they've been trying to do for six years before going on to something bigger.

It's just the same old story--they're always promising something a few years away and never delivering something right now.

Offline FutureSpaceTourist

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Re: Virgin Galactic's orbital plans
« Reply #2 on: October 22, 2010, 09:50:09 pm »
You'd think that they would want to prove that they could do what they've been trying to do for six years before going on to something bigger.

Yes, I do find the timing a bit strange. If anything by talking about something else it detracts from the progress they are making with SS2! (I'm not cynical enough to think that was the whole idea ...) Perhaps  the timing is just a hook to keep mainstream media interested, ie something new.

Branson also said that the investment deal with Aabar is now concluded (which I take to mean that they now have US regulatory approval). I suspect there's a connection; Aabar were to invest $100M in a satelite launch capability, I wonder if the focus is now on orbital? (clearly with an eye on further NASA CCDev funding)

Update: I've now read that NASA is scheduled to release an RFP for phase 2 of the commercial crew program on Monday. So that probably explains the timing, although I still don't get why VG wouldn't want to remain in stealth mode at this point.
« Last Edit: October 22, 2010, 09:57:33 pm by FutureSpaceTourist »

Offline OM

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Re: Virgin Galactic's orbital plans
« Reply #3 on: October 22, 2010, 11:49:55 pm »
You'd think that they would want to prove that they could do what they've been trying to do for six years before going on to something bigger.

It's just the same old story--they're always promising something a few years away and never delivering something right now.

...In order:

1) Let us not forget that the US manned space program pretty much went through this with the jump from Redstone to Atlas. It *can* be done, which brings us to...

2) In Branson's case, the neohippy actually *has* the money to achieve the regular suborbitals, and has had such cash - in liquid, spendable assets - all along. That's the real pisser where Virgin Galactic is concerned. Out of all the private interests in this particular steeplechase, Branson should have already had regular flights going back when I still had two legs.

Offline FutureSpaceTourist

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Re: Virgin Galactic's orbital plans
« Reply #4 on: October 23, 2010, 12:42:16 am »
In Branson's case, the neohippy actually *has* the money to achieve the regular suborbitals, and has had such cash - in liquid, spendable assets - all along.

Doesn't Bezos and Blue Origin too? (Branson is spending company money and has a board to convince, Bezos is spending his personal money.) Not clear how much progress Blue Orign have made in the last four years, but I bet if you asked them four years ago they'd have said that they'll be in space by now. On a smaller scale XCOR were confident the Lynx would begin test flights this year; SpaceX routinely take longer than forecast etc etc.

Turns out this space business is a bit harder than they all thought!
« Last Edit: October 23, 2010, 12:43:48 am by FutureSpaceTourist »

Offline blackstar

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Re: Virgin Galactic's orbital plans
« Reply #5 on: October 23, 2010, 09:24:52 am »
You'd think that they would want to prove that they could do what they've been trying to do for six years before going on to something bigger.

Yes, I do find the timing a bit strange. If anything by talking about something else it detracts from the progress they are making with SS2! (I'm not cynical enough to think that was the whole idea ...) Perhaps  the timing is just a hook to keep mainstream media interested, ie something new.

CUT

Update: I've now read that NASA is scheduled to release an RFP for phase 2 of the commercial crew program on Monday. So that probably explains the timing, although I still don't get why VG wouldn't want to remain in stealth mode at this point.

They're looking for walking around money, but that doesn't indicate a serious development effort.

But I go back to my original exasperation--they really should do what they say they are going to do before they talk about the next big thing.  It's like they throw this shiny object out for people to chase to distract from what is actually going on now.  And people chase it.  The real questions that the reporters should have been asking are "When are you going to start doing full-duration engine tests on the ground?  When are you going to do a full-duration flight of SS2 to altitude?"  If they don't provide an answer, then the lead should be "Virgin Galactic unable to say when they will begin full testing."  But Branson knows how to play the game: reporters are looking for a new angle, so he gave them a new angle, and they report that, and ignore the other stuff.

They still have quite a ways to go before they can even start doing revenue flights.  My guess is that it will take them at least 2-3 years, assuming no accidents or other setbacks, before they can take up paying customers.  And we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that simply taking revenue doesn't equate to success--they could operate at a loss for many years and then fold up shop.  I'd like to see a successful business before they go on to tackle something even bigger.  I generally like VG, but I'm still pretty skeptical of their chances, and they are in the lead.

So much of the enthusiast community really loses sight of the real picture.  If you had said to them back in 2004 that it would take ten years for VG to go operational, they would not have believed it.  And they certainly would not have liked hearing that.*  But here we are six years later and now some of them get all excited because VG is hinting at the next big thing, without having delivered on their original promise.



*Actually, I made a bet with one of the cheerleaders back in 2005.  He predicted "operational" suborbital tourist flights by 2007.  I bet him a dinner that it would not happen even by 2008.  He was honorable enough to buy me dinner after losing the bet.  Had I bet him in 2008 that it would not happen even by 2011, he would have taken that bet too.  But he still lacks sufficient skepticism about these programs and their promises.  So much of that community is so frustrated with NASA, and dislikes NASA and government so much, that they are blind to the over-promising made by private industry.

Offline FutureSpaceTourist

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Re: Virgin Galactic's orbital plans
« Reply #6 on: October 26, 2010, 01:27:36 pm »
A little bit more info is emerging about how Virgin might get involved in CCDev, but still not really any the wiser as to why ...

Quote from: http://www.aviationweek.com/aw/generic/story_channel.jsp?channel=space&id=news/asd/2010/10/26/02.xml
“There’s about four companies that are seriously looking at [CCDev Phase 2],” Branson said in an interview with AVIATION WEEK. “Two of those companies we’re in discussions with about teaming up with. ... Over the next month, we’re going to make a decision as to whether to team up with one of those two companies or go it alone, but we plan to be in orbital travel within the next few years.”

All I can guess is that (rightly or wrongly) they're confident that suborbital will be established in the relatively near future and want to have made a start on the next step. May be worried about being left behind if someone else makes a success out of orbital?

But I go back to my original exasperation--they really should do what they say they are going to do before they talk about the next big thing.

I certainly agree that they shouldn't do anything that takes resources/focus away from getting WK2/SS2 operational. I'm sure they're very aware of how much longer the suborbital program is taking than planned, so they must think that starting discussions on orbital doesn't detract from it?

Offline blackstar

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Re: Virgin Galactic's orbital plans
« Reply #7 on: October 26, 2010, 02:06:37 pm »
http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1716/1

Article says that they are talking about revenue flights 9-18 months from now.  So that means June 2012 at the outside.

Place your bets.

Offline blackstar

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Re: Virgin Galactic's orbital plans
« Reply #8 on: October 26, 2010, 02:11:32 pm »
All I can guess is that (rightly or wrongly) they're confident that suborbital will be established in the relatively near future and want to have made a start on the next step. May be worried about being left behind if someone else makes a success out of orbital?

One of their big limitations has always been that they are a prototype shop, not a production shop.  So a really interesting question in this is how many vehicles do they intend to build, and how will they produce them?  They've built one, but are they working on any more?  If not, they won't have any resiliency if they suffer a problem during testing.  For instance, suppose they have a gear collapse and structural damage.  That would not indicate a design flaw, but with only one vehicle, it could set them back four months.

And once they go operational, who builds follow-on vehicles?  Do they hand over the plans to another company and have that company build the follow-ons?

This ties into their ability to take on any other work.  It's really a question of how much depth they have.  Do they have enough people to take some away from VG in order to work on something new?

Offline mz

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Re: Virgin Galactic's orbital plans
« Reply #9 on: October 26, 2010, 04:47:22 pm »
It seems every team has potential showstoppers.

VG has the huge N2O hybrid which is unknown territory.

Armadillo and Masten (and I assumme Blue Origin also) have vertical landing which may be troublesome for passenger service. (Yet it may not.)

XCOR has probably tricky aerodynamic problems.


I'd say Armadillo and Masten are the closest to starting unmanned suborbital reusable flights. Semantically they have done that for years but let's be nice and use the 100+ km definition for suborbital.

They have to tackle aero issues, slightly bigger and slightly better vehicles and all other navigational and other issues of flying so much higher than before. But both of them have, AFAIK, done a few a couple hundred meter flights and engine inflight relights. As well as the 180 seconds LLC flights back then.

(Disregarding drag (drag is a big thing in small scale) and assuming a single impulse thrust, 100 km height requires only 1400 m/s. LLC level 2 required 1800 m/s, so they have quite good performance already in that sense...)
« Last Edit: October 26, 2010, 04:50:38 pm by mz »

Offline quellish

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Re: Virgin Galactic's orbital plans
« Reply #10 on: October 26, 2010, 06:15:17 pm »
One of their big limitations has always been that they are a prototype shop, not a production shop.  So a really interesting question in this is how many vehicles do they intend to build, and how will they produce them?  They've built one, but are they working on any more?  If not, they won't have any resiliency if they suffer a problem during testing.  For instance, suppose they have a gear collapse and structural damage.  That would not indicate a design flaw, but with only one vehicle, it could set them back four months.

And once they go operational, who builds follow-on vehicles?  Do they hand over the plans to another company and have that company build the follow-ons?

Well, there is a separate organization that's intended to do that:
http://www.thespaceshipcompany.com/
They've been recruiting heavily, though I do not know if that is resulting in a lot of hires.

Offline blackstar

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Re: Virgin Galactic's orbital plans
« Reply #11 on: October 26, 2010, 06:56:47 pm »
Well, there is a separate organization that's intended to do that:
http://www.thespaceshipcompany.com/
They've been recruiting heavily, though I do not know if that is resulting in a lot of hires.

Interesting.  But it's not like that is an aircraft company, like Cessna, for instance, that has experience and is simply going to produce what it gets in the blueprints.  I wonder about the business legalisms of this.  This might be essentially the same people and facilities, but a separate company for legal purposes.  No matter what, it goes back to my question of how well they will transition to production.

Offline FutureSpaceTourist

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Re: Virgin Galactic's orbital plans
« Reply #12 on: October 26, 2010, 07:32:44 pm »
So that means June 2012 at the outside.

Place your bets.

Ok, I'll play ... first revenue flight Q4 2012

This might be essentially the same people and facilities, but a separate company for legal purposes.  No matter what, it goes back to my question of how well they will transition to production.

Scaled are contracted to produce blueprints and tooling, The Spaceship Company (TSC) builds the operational vehicles from them. It's certainly different facilities, they have a big separate hanger in Mojave (with plans to build more IIRC) don't know if any people will transfer. I think it recognises that Scaled aren't, and I assume don't want to be, a production company (as well as the fact that VG own the WK2/SS2 designs). TSC was announced in 2005, so it's pretty much always been the plan. I agree that the transition will be key and it'll be interesting to see when it happens.
« Last Edit: October 26, 2010, 07:34:36 pm by FutureSpaceTourist »

Offline quellish

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Re: Virgin Galactic's orbital plans
« Reply #13 on: October 26, 2010, 10:06:25 pm »
Interesting.  But it's not like that is an aircraft company, like Cessna, for instance, that has experience and is simply going to produce what it gets in the blueprints.  I wonder about the business legalisms of this.  This might be essentially the same people and facilities, but a separate company for legal purposes.  No matter what, it goes back to my question of how well they will transition to production.

My initial impression had been that it was created purely for legal reasons, but after meeting some of their people and learning more about them, it appears they are serious about creating a production capability. Some of the people came over from Scaled, sure, but they've also brought some very interesting and capable outsides onboard, with all the right experience.

Offline blackstar

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Re: Virgin Galactic's orbital plans
« Reply #14 on: October 27, 2010, 05:59:49 am »
Thank you.  Very interesting.

Is there any indication that they have already started construction on follow-on aircraft?