Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo logs 54th test flight

SpaceShipTwo_VirginGalactic_landingVirgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, the futuristic rocket plane expected to carry hundreds of tourists to suborbital space, completed an unpowered test flight at Mojave Air and Space Port Tuesday Oct. 7.

It was the spaceship’s 54th test flight, and it came just three days after Virgin’s billionaire founder, Sir Richard Branson, spent Saturday in Mojave celebrating the 10th anniversary of SpaceShipOne’s historic flights to suborbital space.

But at that celebration, Branson appeared frustrated — or chagrined — that a decade after SS1 captured the $10 million Ansari X Prize, his second-generation spaceship has still not begun commercial operations.

“It has taken longer than we thought, ” he told the crowd of about 300.

In January, SS2 completed its third powered test flight. But it hasn’t come close to the boundary of space.

Branson has repeatedly been forced to push back target dates for the first commercial flight. Most recently on the Late Show with David Letterman, Branson, for the first time, said the $250,000 thrill rides would not begin until next year.

Virgin has been tight-lipped about the reason for the delays, but Brian Binnie, who piloted the X Prize–winning flight in 2004, told Popular Mechanics SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor is the problem.

“The delay in SpaceShipTwo has not been the development of either of the vehicles. But the rocket motor has just been problematic from the get-go,” Binnie is quoted as saying in the magazine’s Oct. 6 issue.

Rumors about problems with the motor have been circulating for months. Binnie, who worked until February at Scaled Composites, the builder of SpaceShipTwo, appears to have confirmed those rumors in his Popular Mechanics interview.

Other problems, he told the magazine, included the ship’s synthetic-rubber solid fuel mixture and the fuel tank itself, a version of which exploded during a ground test in 2007, killing three Scaled employees.

Binnie, who has written a book about his time at Scaled, was hawking it pretty hard at Saturday’s event in Mojave. It seemed his departure from Scaled, which was founded by aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, allowed him the freedom to speak out.

“I knew I could never do anything with this thing, because if I did I was going to get fired. I don’t quite have that worry anymore,” he said Saturday as Rutan and Branson looked on.

Following Tuesday’s test flight, Virgin tweeted that the “flight brings spaceflight closer.”

That may be true, but Branson said Saturday he’s done making predictions. bakersfieldcalifornian.com