Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Rollout: The X PRIZE Perspective

Here is a quick debrief with Will Pomerantz and Nicky Jordan about the December 7th event in the Mojave (in case you missed it, there are plenty of articles written about the SS2 unveiling, like here and here. And here.)

There was quite a crowd present for the unveiling of SpaceShipTwo. Who were some of the featured guests? Any interesting quotes, stories, or close encounters with them?

NJ: It was unbelievable to see how many people showed up to this event, we had all sort of legendary pilots such as; Colonel Dick Rutan, Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie, the Governors of both California and New Mexico (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Richardson), all sorts of industry leaders and supporters, and last but not least many of the core technical leaders who have been working on the design and construction of the SS2. The plane's name was announced to be the V.S.S Enterprise-V.S.S. is short for Virgin Space Ship.

WP: It was great to get a chance to meet several of Virgin's 'Future Astronauts' - the customers who have already purchased tickets to fly on SpaceShipTwo. They were the most excited people in the tent, and for obvious reasons--I think all of them had ear-to-ear grins the entire night, despite the weather. One thing I found interesting was that many of these future astronauts mentioned that they will be the first person from their nation to fly into space, and that they hope to be able to use their flights to inspire their countrymen and countrywomen.

It was also great to see a lot of the X PRIZE Foundation's friends and advisors. There were a few former X PRIZE staffers there, too--Brett Alexander, John Gedmark, Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides, and Sam Coniglio. As an X PRIZE 'old timer,' I always appreciate any chance to see those folks again.

How would you describe the rollout itself, and how does our future ride to suborbital space look?

NJ: The rollout was quite an experience! Congratulations to the Virgin and Scaled teams for all their hard work! The banners, the lighting, the music, the ice bar, the hot cocktails, and the food everything made for an unforgettable experience. Unfortunately it was extremely cold, and even though we had all received jackets and hands as souvenirs, I think that for a lot of us it was quite hard to stay outside to admire the spaceship. Nevertheless, we were all part of a big moment in history, and for all of us that have been dreaming of going into space since we were little kids, it was very exciting to see our dreams coming closer to reality. I think things are still going to take some time, and suborbital rides into space might not happen as quickly as we all would like, but I wish this team the best of luck in all the test flights... and I look forward to being the first Colombian to go up for a ride in the SpaceShipTwo.

WP: Like Nicky said, the weather certainly made it memorable. The SpaceShip itself is stunningly gorgeous. I wish I had a bit more skill as a photographer--and that my hands were not so frozen that I could barely operate the camera. It was pretty hard for me to do the vehicle justice. But it's really a great looking spacecraft, and it's got that signature Rutan / Scaled Composites feel to it.

Was there any mention of upcoming test flights for SS2?

WP: Rutan, Branson, and Whitehorn have studiously avoided setting out timelines. It seems clear that some test program will begin fairly soon--but it's also clear that they aren't going to rush the process. They did indicate that the SpaceShipTwo test program will closely mirror the program for SpaceShipOne: captive carry tests, glide tests, feathered glide tests, and then rocket powered flights. You can actually find the complete test flight logs for SpaceShipOne online, along with the ongoing test logs for White Knight Two and Rocket Motor Two.

NJ: The first V.S.S Enterprise test flights are expected to start next year; there was no real timeline mentioned, but Sir Richard Branson did tell the audience that he will not be flying his family nor any of his customers until the vehicle is proven to be completely safe. I agree with him , and I believe that I speak for all of those that work in the private space industry when I say is not worth rushing things and hurting the future of such a wonderful industry.

We've heard that the night ended with some excitement. What happened?

NJ: Yeah... unfortunately, the winds were very strong and we received some sort of wind storm alerts. All of the guests were forced to evacuate a couple of hours earlier than planned. Some of us were not able to even ride our buses all the ways back to LA because the winds were so strong on the roads and even some roads had been closed. We ended up waiting for the storm to pass at the Mariah Country Inn just outside of airport property there in Mojave. The last batch of people--which included Will and I, along with several others--didn't make it back to Los Angeles until after 3am.

WP: It was a night to remember in every sense. But really, it was an occasion for the whole space community to celebrate another step forward. The success of Virgin Galactic will also serve to benefit the other Ansari X PRIZE teams, the members of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, and the teams from the Google Lunar X PRIZE and the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X PRIZE Challenge. The more we prove that there is a market for space, the better off we'll all be. And the 70 mile per hour winds and freezing temperatures? Those just build character.

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