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Today, suborbital space tourism company Virgin Galactic crossed an important milestone in spectacular fashion: The first rocket-powered flight of the SpaceShipTwo vehicle.  Although it didn't go into space, the flight did go supersonic and created some truly awesome imagery (see below).  Unfortunately, the history and culture of the company's development inspires no confidence in how it will proceed from here.  For nearly a decade it has been, and apparently remains, a company that periodically generates a lot of excitement and then just goes nowhere for years for no apparent reason.

There's no denying it, this is awesome beyond the power of words:


SpaceShip2 Rockets Ahead

You can't get much more science-fictiony than that.  But there was another beautiful, science-fictiony thing a while back, and Richard Branson apparently never knew enough about it to learn from history:


As bizarre as it seems, a private company is repeating the strategic mistakes of the Space Shuttle program.  You see, SpaceShipTwo (SS2) is not designed to be cheap, or simple, or to be mass-produced, or to spread new technologies into the aviation or rocketry industries: It is an utterly customized, Baroque vehicle that will probably never be purchased or leased by anyone other than Virgin Galactic, using innovations that don't appear to be applicable outside of enabling this particular spacecraft to fly this particular kind of flight.  In other words, even if it becomes operational and has a long future career of taking passengers into low space, there's no industrial foundation to build on the accomplishment.    

And that's if everything goes perfectly.  The real problem with this approach shows up when things go wrong, or even just sub-optimally.  When you build one customized thing on top of another ad nauseum, there's nowhere to turn when you run into problems - no preexisting alternate route to the same objective.  You have to figure out some entirely new customized strategy to deal with the one that proved untenable.  This is why $30,000 Hondas are more reliable than million-dollar Italian supercars: Because one of them is mass-produced on a giant scale to the point that the gremlins in the system are virtually eradicated while something like a Ferrari demands diligent maintenance.  The level of Baroque technology in SS2 goes way beyond that level of customization: It's an entire industry unto itself, at ultra-low-volume - again, like the Space Shuttle.

So when there's any issue at all identified at some point in the testing program, no matter how basic, everything grinds to a halt.  This is why it took five years after the successful spaceflights of the prototype (SS1) in 2004 before SS2 was even constructed, despite the enormous financial resources of the company via its principal backer, Richard Branson.  And why the past four years since have been an arduous process of unpowered glide flights and aerodynamic tweaking, often with months in between tests where the ship just sat in the hangar.  At one point they spent half a year of no activity while trying to figure out how best to tweak little aerodynamic stabilizers, and of course every fix carries the possibility of further problems.  And while that was going on, tests of the rocket motor - always separate from the spacecraft - happened even more slowly.

But today, nearly a decade after the prototype actually flew into space, twice, they finally put the rocket engine into the spacecraft and fired it - though not into space.  And it looked awesome.  But it's impossible to forget the context in which this occurred, because the past is prologue.  They say they hope to advance the powered flight testing quickly enough to go into space before the end of the year, but then they had hoped they would be doing powered flight testing in 2009; then it was 2010; then 2011; then 2012...and they never gave much of an explanation for why.  It just dragged on, and on, and on.  The construction process of the vehicles had dragged on seemingly forever, then the glide flight testing program did likewise, and now they're finally entering powered testing.  How do you think that's going to go?

Given that this is the first time the entire system - aircraft and rocket - are operating in an integrated fashion, all sorts of gremlins are going to crop up, possibly including things that were missed in the earlier testing regimens, and they might be very complex.  So while I want to believe them that they'll be flying into space by the end of the year, I have no confidence that they will.  Every minor hiccup will produce months of delays, and each additional hiccup will be multiplicative rather than additive to the delay.  So I can't even say with any level of confidence that they'll even be in space by the end of next year, or the year after that, or the year after that.  As before, at some point there will simply be a test with results they don't like, and then we just won't hear from them again for three months, five months, eight months, then there'll be another test and the process repeats.

In other words, they don't have much confidence in their own spacecraft.  Every significant delay is an indication that they don't even trust it enough to risk elite test pilots flying it, let alone paying passengers.  And all the while they advertise their absolute terror of their own spacecraft as a "commitment to safety," even though safety comes from testing, not avoidance of testing.  But let's imagine that they finally go into space, whenever that proves to be.  What happens next?  Do they enter commercial operations and start flying paying passengers?  Nope.  Now they start the spaceflight testing part of the program, flying complete mission profiles.  In other words, the process repeats once again, with even more opportunities for massive delay.  And that's if nothing truly catastrophic happens, because if it did then years of delays would probably be guaranteed - once again, just like the Space Shuttle.

Given what we're seeing here, this kind of approach carries a significant possibility that they will never enter operational spaceflight service, no matter how much money they have at their disposal.  But even if/when they do, now the most fundamental strategic flaws of Virgin Galactic come to fruition and we see just how ill-conceived the whole endeavor is: It's designed to transport six people at a time per commercial flight, meaning that a fatal accident would be on the same scale of tragedy as a Shuttle explosion, but instead of being the deaths of intrepid professional astronauts they would be millionaires looking for a fun time who'd been sold on Virgin Galactic's foolish mantra of "Safety, safety, safety."  Millionaires with families who might not be as interested in the abstract importance of spaceflight.

Instead of reciting this mantra of safety, from the very beginning they should have said, "Of course it's not safe.  It won't be safe for decades.  We're offering people the opportunity to participate in the process of making it safe by being early private space flyers."  People jump off of buildings and bridges, jump out of planes and helicopters, swim with sharks and photograph lions, and they die constantly from it - they don't need to be told that spaceflight will be like a paddle boat on a lake.  And the fact that they are being told that just sets the stage for any catastrophe to be far more damaging that it has to be.  So even if they enter operations, every single flight will put the entire company in jeopardy, and threaten to send it back into the quagmire of testing if not just terminate the endeavor altogether.

But let's assume no catastrophe ever happens, and they operate as well as they can for as long as they can.  Do the math on the service they're offering: $200,000 for one period of weightlessness that's about 6 minutes long with some great black-sky views out the windows.  Compare that with the service offered by Zero Gravity Corporation (Zero-G) - a company that flies parabolic dives in ordinary jet aircraft to simulate weightlessness.  Their ticket prices are $5,000 for a total of 450 seconds (7.5 minutes) of weightlessness, divided into 15 periods of 30 seconds each, although there are no windows because there's nothing to see.  Zero-G has been operational for years, and now flies almost every other week.  


The evolutionary pathway for evolving upward from Zero-G is a lot simpler and more straightforward than for Virgin Galactic to build on its plans: Once they or a competitor have enough money, just modify existing aircraft for higher altitudes and longer dives - innovations that might actually be relevant to general aviation.  While Virgin Galactic was charging $200,000 for 7 minutes and grounding their fleet for months every time some hiccup occurred, Zero-G or some future competitor could be charging $10,000 for over a dozen jaunts of two-minute weightlessness in overwhelmingly conventional aircraft, and possibly going high enough for windows to be worthwhile (indigo sky, rather than black sky).

Of course, Zero-G never says much about its plans or operations, so there are no guarantees about what they or any competitor they ultimately have will do, but one thing does appear certain: Virgin Galactic is a cul-de-sac on the road to the stars.

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Comment Preferences

  •  It's Branson's new toy, that's all... (6+ / 0-)

    ...while Elon Musk actually built a transport system.

    Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight! Clean Coal Is A Clinker!

    by JeffW on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 08:57:54 PM PDT

  •  I'v long dismissed virgin galactic... (5+ / 0-)

    as a bit of a stunt. They aren't going for real space flight, just upper atmosphere tourism. That's great and interesting and all, but it's not space flight. It's not useful, it doesn't advance the vital cause of space exploration. There are other companies, like SpaceX, doing that.

    That being said, I don't see why anyone should have a particular problem with how long it's taking them. It takes as long as it takes, and as long as they have their private funding I say let the markets work. To my knowledge, Virgin Galactic hasn't gotten any NASA money so they are free to work as long as they need to to perfect their product. Until the money runs out, then they'll fold like any failed business and the market will have a high profile example of how not to do private space enterprise.

    PS. If I had the money, I would happily drop $200k on a chance to see the curvature of the earth from the upper edge of our atmosphere with my own eyes. Zero G sounds fun, but it's all about the view for me.

    "There is one rule for the industrialist and that is: Make the best quality of goods possible at the lowest cost possible, paying the highest wages possible." -Henry Ford

    by sixeight120bpm on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 09:12:51 PM PDT

    •  The importance of suborbital spaceflight (5+ / 0-)

      is exactly what you touch on: The view.  The more people get to see that view with their own eyes, the more it changes the psychology of society.  And, of course, we all want a future where point-to-point travel will be possible - e.g., New York to Tokyo in a couple of hours.

      My irritation with Virgin Galactic is based on opportunity cost.  It doesn't stop anyone else from doing better, but it's still awful to see potential wasted.  VG has made and continues to make some poor, short-sighted decisions.

      Ever get the feeling you've been sold a monorail?

      by Troubadour on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 09:25:32 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  We've Devoted Half a Century To Making the Short (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        GreyHawk, adrianrf

        sight the only economic view that matters.

        Whatever's economically wrong with this is not Branson's fault.

        We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

        by Gooserock on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 09:34:24 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  More like SpaceShipNone IMHO (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        View be damned--you aren't going to goose a revolution in space travel a half-dozen plutocrats at a time.

        The whole idea that this is space travel is bullshit. The only--ONLY--reason that 100 km is defined as the lower edge of "outer space" is so X-15 pilots would qualify as astronauts. We've known how to build a machine that can get its human crew back down safely from 4000 mph and ~100 km without having to replace half the craft for coming onto 50 years now--the aforementioned X-15. SpaceShipsNone are just repeating history as farce.

        Anyone who was serious about promoting real "space travel" would be thinking long & hard about how to get a craft down from 15,000 mph and >100 miles without having to replace half of it every flight or spend 2 months inspecting & patching the heat shield. There ought to be a competition for that re-entry capability--call it the Y-Prize. And then run a Z-Prize for SSTO via scramjet boost. Do that & you're in busines.

        But I agree with you, this Virgin Eclectic mickeymouse is a dead end.


        by Uncle Cosmo on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 12:45:26 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  I have a problem with it: environmental impact (0+ / 0-)

      That's a lot of fuel to burn off and pollution to emit for a few rich people's joyrides.

      Orbital tourism even more so.

      Make it solar power-generated H2 & O2 fuel, and I'd consider it.

      Government and laws are the agreement we all make to secure everyone's freedom.

      by Simplify on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 11:43:01 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  In the meantime (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Tinfoil Hat, Troubadour

    I'll spend $425 in a couple of weeks to fly on a B-17. That's pretty cool too.

  •  "Of course it's not safe". That's right on target. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Troubadour, eOz, milkbone, Odysseus

    Tom Wolf's "The Right Stuff" opened with a brilliant debunking of the myth of the all-conquering, always successful test pilot/astronaut by reviewing the horrific history of disasters and crashes during the post-WWII "X-Plane" era of test flights.

    He rightly pointed out the remarkable professionalism of test pilots at the controls of experimental craft spinning out of control toward the desert floor, calmly radioing "I've tried 'A'; I've tried 'B'; next I'm going to try 'C'. Nothing's worked so far, but...." Kerblam!

    Or his bit about the true meaning of "burned beyond recognition". "That really means 'cooked like a Thanksgiving turkey'".

    •  Branson's emphasis on safety is really stupid. (0+ / 0-)

      There is no way he can generate enough business at $200k per ticket for it to be useful to try to sell it as some kind of airliner.  The people who will buy tickets will be ones who want to feel like they're involved in something intrepid and important.

      Ever get the feeling you've been sold a monorail?

      by Troubadour on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 08:17:15 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Single point of failure (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    The only pitch control while going through the mach is the electric pitch trim.

    That's 1947 Bell X-1 technology and fine for Chuck Yeager but I wouldn't want to bet my life on it.

    I understand Burt Rutan's "lighter, cheaper, simpler" philosophy, but I'm not sure I'd want it on a space plane.

    Back in Flight Engineer school I was taught "Mister Boeing doesn't like a single point of failure".

    If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

    by Major Kong on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 08:10:42 AM PDT

    •  And there's no Eject from that thing. (0+ / 0-)

      Ever get the feeling you've been sold a monorail?

      by Troubadour on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 08:19:22 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Ingrained military lessons (0+ / 0-)

      You can spread your eggs across multiple baskets, or you can make one really good basket that you can trust all your eggs to.

      The aerospace world learned to do it the first way because it doesn't matter how reliable a system is on a warplane because no reliability engineering can prevent someone from shooting it. Only backups can protect against hostile fire.

      Freedom isn't free. Patriots pay taxes.

      by Dogs are fuzzy on Sun May 05, 2013 at 02:18:54 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  If you're going to go suborbital (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    and I'm not against it - why not actually go somewhere?

    Get up out of most of the atmosphere and you can be anywhere on the planet in around 90 minutes.

    People were willing (not enough unfortunately) to pay $10,000 a seat to go Paris -> New York in 4 hours on Concorde.

    If you could get the price down in that range I'd bet people would pay to go New York -> Sidney in 90 minutes.

    If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

    by Major Kong on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 08:26:36 AM PDT

    •  Point-to-point (p2p) suborbital (0+ / 0-)

      is a level of technology above where we are right now, because going partway around the world involves almost the same amount of energy needed to go into orbit.  Things like SpaceShipTwo only have the power to get above the atmosphere and then return to where they started - they're not nearly powerful enough to have the kind of lateral velocity needed for point-to-point.

      However, suborbital tourism is useful because it at least contributes to rocket technology through routine use, and gets people used to high-altitude flight.  You can evolve technology like that up to a p2p system over time, whereas you can't really evolve orbital technology downward to a p2p system - it's too robust.  It just sucks that Virgin Galactic's systems are so customized, because they're never going to be able to evolve them.

      Ever get the feeling you've been sold a monorail?

      by Troubadour on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 09:22:21 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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