Virgin Galactic's orbital plans

FutureSpaceTourist

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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 author=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.
[/quote]

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.
 

blackstar

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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.
 

FutureSpaceTourist

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blackstar said:
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.
 

OM

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blackstar said:
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.
 

FutureSpaceTourist

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OM said:
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!
 

blackstar

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FutureSpaceTourist said:
blackstar said:
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.
 

FutureSpaceTourist

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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 ...

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] said:
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?
 

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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.
 

blackstar

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FutureSpaceTourist said:
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?
 

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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...)
 

quellish

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blackstar said:
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.
 

blackstar

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quellish said:
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.
 

FutureSpaceTourist

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blackstar said:
So that means June 2012 at the outside.

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

blackstar said:
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.
 

quellish

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blackstar said:
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.
 

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Thank you. Very interesting.

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

FutureSpaceTourist

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blackstar said:
Is there any indication that they have already started construction on follow-on aircraft?
No, I don't think they have - not least as on Tuesday they broke ground on the new TSC facility:

[quote author=http://www.virgingalactic.com/news/item/tsc-hangar-groundbreaking/]
MOJAVE, CA, November 9, 2010 – The Spaceship Company (TSC) broke ground today for its new Final Assembly, Integration and Test Hangar today at Mojave Air & Space Port [...]

The new building, a 68,000 square foot, clear span, 737-sized hangar including offices, will serve as TSC’s operating headquarters once complete and be used primarily for the final assembly, integration and testing of TSC’s vehicles before they enter service. The building is sized to support the production of two WhiteKnightTwos and at least two SpaceShipTwos in parallel and has been designed to meet LEED standards.

[...]
[/quote]

I'll say this for Virgin, they're making a substantial investment in all this. Not convinced F.A.I.T.H. is a good name though for the new facility ...

The most recent VG promotional video (below) has a brief segment of Richard Branson visiting the existing TSC hanger; it's still looking pretty empty!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRr0GLSAzdw
 

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FutureSpaceTourist said:
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 author=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.
I would say reentry angle, TPS and engines/subsystems reliability. The 2nd one might be solved with the new ultra high temp TPS from the X-33 and X-37, the first one would have to do with the design of the vehicle (blunt nose or sharp sharp nose and sharp leading edges, choice of TPS material), the last one would be one of the most sticky points for a commercial passenger orbital vehicle.

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.
[/quote]
 

FutureSpaceTourist

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Desert Dawn said:
I would say reentry angle, TPS and engines/subsystems reliability.
I agree with the first two. You may by right about the third as well, but alternatively I'd suggest achieving orbital velocity with a re-usable launch vehicle (eg recovery of a second stage booster, if first stage is air launch).
 

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VG may be part of two CCDev2 bids:

[quote author=http://www.spacenews.com/civil/101213-orbital-virgin-ccdev2-bid.html]
WASHINGTON — Orbital Sciences Corp. is proposing a new lifting-body spacecraft capable of carrying at least four passengers to orbit by 2015 in the competition for a second round of NASA commercial crew taxi development contracts slated for award in March, according to industry sources.

The spacecraft, designed to launch atop an Atlas 5 rocket and dock with the international space station, could be ready for test flights as early as 2014. The remotely piloted spacecraft would be able to carry four passengers initially, including three astronauts and one paying ticketholder, though based on market demand the number of private rides aboard the vehicle could grow to two, with four astronaut seats available, sources said. In the works at Orbital for the past year, the reusable spacecraft would be built using existing materials and technologies, employ standard hypergolic propellants and rely on a pusher escape system in the event of a launch mishap, sources said.

Dulles, Va.-based Orbital is teaming with Virgin Galactic of New Mexico on the Commercial Crew Development 2 (CCDev 2) project. Virgin Galactic will market commercial rides on the spacecraft, conduct drop tests of the orbital space vehicle using its WhiteKnightTwo aircraft and offer transport services for the space vehicle, industry sources said. Although Orbital expects to launch and land the spacecraft at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., in the event of an abort, WhiteKnightTwo would be used to ferry the spaceship between its landing location and the Cape.

Virgin is also expected to announce this week a separate CCDev 2 bid led by Sierra Nevada Corp., the big winner in NASA’s first round of Commercial Crew Development awards earlier this year.

[...]
[/quote]
 

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what is certain is that the "shuttlecock" think doesn't work at orbital speed reentries. Then Virgin will have to build something quite differentfrom Spaceship 1 or 2. Should take time and money...
 

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Orbital have released some details of their CCDev2 submission, but haven't mentioned VG at all:

[quote author=http://www.orbital.com/NewsInfo/release.asp?prid=756]
Orbital Submits Proposal for NASA's Commercial Crew Development Program
-- Company Issues Top-Level Details of Its Concept to Transport Astronauts To and From the International Space Station --


(Dulles, VA 14 December 2010)

Orbital Sciences Corporation (NYSE: ORB) today announced that it has submitted a proposal to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in response to the Commercial Crew Development-2 contract solicitation. The company also provided several top-level details of its proposal for providing safe and affordable transportation services to and from the International Space Station (ISS) and for commercial activities in Earth orbit. Orbital’s concept includes the following details:

  • A “blended lifting body” vehicle that will launch atop an expendable launch vehicle and return to Earth with a conventional runway landing. This design derives from studies performed by Orbital for NASA under the Orbital Space Plane program between 2000 and 2003.
  • The vehicle would seat four astronauts, providing a cost-effective solution for NASA’s astronaut transportation needs, as well as enabling future commercial applications.
  • The proposal baselines using a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, but is flexible enough to accommodate other launch vehicle options.
Click here to view Orbital's Proposed Commercial Crew Space Vehicle: http://www.orbital.com/NewsInfo/ImagesMultimedia/Images/ExplorationSystems/

Orbital also announced that it will lead a team of world-class suppliers that will contribute major elements of the system. Orbital’s major suppliers include:

  • Thales Alenia Space, which is responsible for the vehicle’s pressurized crew compartment
  • Northrop Grumman, which is the lead airframe structures designer
  • Honeywell and Draper Laboratory, which together are responsible for the human-rated avionics
  • United Launch Alliance, which is responsible for the vehicle’s baseline launch vehicle
[...]
[/quote]

Although Space News says:

[quote author=http://www.spacenews.com/civil/101214-orbital-unveils-supplier-ccdev2.html]
[...]

According to industry sources, Orbital Sciences plans to team with Virgin Galactic of New Mexico to market commercial rides on the planned spacecraft and conduct drop tests of the orbital space vehicle using Virgin’s WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.

Virgin Galactic, however, is not mentioned in Orbital’s Dec. 14 press release, which lists only the “major suppliers” that will “contribute major elements of the system.”

[...]
[/quote]

Attached images, from Orbital's website, show the new CCDev2 proposal. For comparison some images of Orbital's OSP design from 2000-2003 are below (posted in a separate thread):



 

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FutureSpaceTourist

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VG have now confirmed their participation in both Orbital's and SNC's CCDev bids:

[quote author=http://www.virgingalactic.com/news/item/virgin-galactic/]
[...]

The second phase of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDEV2), designed to stimulate development of privately-operated crew vehicles to low Earth orbit, presents an opportunity for VG to start to map a path towards a commercial orbital service for fare-paying passengers by encouraging reusable technologies and designs which can offer important advantages to safety, cost and passenger experience.

Both SNC and OSC are pursuing vehicle designs under CCDEV2 featuring reusable lifting-wing bodies and runway landings, which VG believes could revolutionize orbital space flight in much the same way that SpaceShipTwo has revolutionized sub-orbital space flight.

As a contributor to SNC’s and OSC’s submissions to NASA, VG is proposing to market seats on these vehicles to the public and to its existing customer base, which now numbers more than 400 people who have made deposits of over $54 million. VG will also investigate providing its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, to SNC and OSC during their test flight programs.

[...]
[/quote]
 

Mr London 24/7

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Spaceport America Plans:

http://www.ispcs.com/files/tiny_mce/file_manager/presentations/homans.pdf
 

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Interesting that they have added the reflective surfaces to the inside of the vertical stabilizers, probably to reduce the heat radiation off the engine.

But they have been moving awfully slow. If they really want to get to commercial flights, they're going to have to step up their testing and soon. I don't see how the FAA is going to let them carry paying passengers without quite a few full power test flights.
 

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blackstar said:
Interesting that they have added the reflective surfaces to the inside of the vertical stabilizers, probably to reduce the heat radiation off the engine.
Yes, I've seen several articles refer to this as TPS to reduce heating during the time the engine is firing.
 

blackstar

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Yeah, you sorta have to wonder about that. They haven't even started commercial flights on their primary development yet, so why are they messing around with this other thing? Okay, they are flush with cash, have long development times, etc. But it still seems a little odd. There's an old saying: "Shut up and sing." I'd just like to see them get operational already.
 

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They might be closer to a "sure thing" business case for the launcher. The government might be waving sacks of cash in front of them. And the people working on the launcher might be a different group than those working on SS2. All good arguments for forging ahead on the launcher regardless of SS2 progress.
 

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Could just be a test nozzle without the rest of the bell.
 

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sferrin said:
Could just be a test nozzle without the rest of the bell.
Very likely. It's not at all unusual for a new rocket engine to be tested a piece at a time, with combustion chamber tests done without most of the nozzle. Many/most rocket engines have the nozzle extension being a separate component from the combustion chamber & throat; if your goal is to test the combustion chamber and/or injector and/or pump system, then the nozzle extension is not only not needed, it may be a waste of resources to add it.
 

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sferrin said:
Could just be a test nozzle without the rest of the bell.
Agreed, for several possible reasons. First, the construction makes it look like this may be a propellant cooled structure, as one might expect with the inital portion of the nozzle where conditions are at lower Mach contributing to greater heat transfer. Also, given this is a pressure fed system I wonder also if the area ratio was chosen to provide near atmospheric pressure matching for ground tests. A higher area ratio nozzle could lead to over expanded flow resulting in shock induced separation and the need to withstand conditions in ground testing which will not be experienced in flight.
 

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http://www.dvice.com/2014-1-22/virgin-galactic-sold-space-tourism-tickets-it-cant-legally-honor
 

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Grey Havoc said:
That article puts the cart in front of the horse. They don't have a launch license because they haven't finished testing the vehicle (in fact, I suspect that they have not even applied for a license yet). So it's misleading/disingenuous to say that they cannot "legally honor" the tickets. Not at this moment, but upon completion of testing, they should be able to do so.

I'm not sure that they'll make it to commercial viability, and they have been moving awfully slow. And Branson originally bragged that they would be flying by 2007 (and he then made a lot of other predictions that have just blown past as well). But this article isn't legitimate criticism.
 

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blackstar said:
Grey Havoc said:
That article puts the cart in front of the horse. They don't have a launch license because they haven't finished testing the vehicle (in fact, I suspect that they have not even applied for a license yet). So it's misleading/disingenuous to say that they cannot "legally honor" the tickets. Not at this moment, but upon completion of testing, they should be able to do so.

Virgin Galactic expects to get FAA license to fly soon
according to this article.
 

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For various definitions of "soon."

They haven't even done a full-duration flight test yet. I don't see how they can get a license before they have actually completed the testing.
 

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Seems this change has been in the works for a while.

Virgin Galactic to test new rocket without longtime aerospace partner.

http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-virgin-galactic-update-20150124-story.html
 
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