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Human Spaceflight Progress Around the World: Part 4

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posted on Jul, 9 2018 @ 11:45 AM
This is the forth installment of the series I have been writing about the progress on human spaceflight around the world. I am unsure whether it will be the last. I will, hopefully, keep in mind the post length issue I have been having with ATS so I can put links in. The last post ran into the length limit and I could not add in the links. While it is not a problem, per se, for the post, I do prefer to put the links in so folks can see I am not merely pulling smelly stuff from my rumpus maximus.

This post is a continuation of the 'private, nongovernmental' players in human spaceflight. There are three other companies at this point that are of note in the human spaceflight regime. We will be covering them here.

Virgin Galactic/Orbit

Branson is a noted businessman in the UK and has a rather large conglomerate of companies are under the Virgin label. On October 4, 2004, Burt Rutan won the Ansari XPrize by reaching to the Kamen line twice within two weeks with his SpaceShipOne rocket plane. Someone watching was Richard Branson and they announced after winning the prize that Branson would be creating Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic would use a derivative design of SpaceShipOne called in a very original way, SpaceShipTwo, to carry groups of people in a suborbital trajectory to allow people experience free fall and see above (most of) the atmosphere. There were some nontrivial changes to SpaceShipOne since it was not ideally designed for the role of a tourist vehicle. In actuality, SS2 is really a new aircraft with some concepts in common with SS1. In the process of developing SS2, there were tragedies.

On July 26, 2007 during a flow test by the Scaled Composites team working on the engine for SS2, an oxidizer tank exploded and killed three Scaled Composites Employees. This was a very avoidable mistake made by the employees and the company should have been taking better precautions, even if they had no intent to light the rocket engine. Very pressurized vessels are very dangerous and complacency will get people killed. Which it did. This caused a general shut down of the company to review safety rules.

On October 31, 2014, the VSS Enterprise, the first suborbital tourist rocketplane built for Virgin Galactic, was on its fourth test flight. It was performing the first powered flight test of a new rocket motor. 11 seconds after being dropped from the WhiteKnight carrier aircraft and at an altitude of approximately 50,000 feet (15km), while at Mach .82, VSS Enterprise disintegrated. One pilot was killed. The surviving pilot had the craft shred itself around him and he released the straps of his seat and the parachute deployed automatically. He was seriously injured but survived the drop without pressure suit or oxygen. It was determined that the feathering mechanism had been unlocked and deployed too soon. The NTSB found there were numerous design decisions that were made because a 'experienced pilot would never do that.' The newer rocketplanes have been updated with far more safety designs to prevent such things from happening.

Since then, the VSS Unity has been built and conducted two powered flights. The first took place on April 5, 2018. The second took place on May 29, 2018. Both flights went off well and flew higher and faster than VSS Enterprise ever did. The second test flight carried the passenger seats for the first time.

The third example of the SpaceShipTwo design is about half way through its construction. It's name, afaict, has not been announced.

In order to get the license to fly passengers from the FAA, Virgin Galactic must fly its rocketplanes up to 100 km repeatedly. This has not happened as yet. When VG will start flying passengers is still very much up in the air. There have several announcements by Branson and others stating passenger flights would happen soon, but that's not been the case.

After the accident with VSS Enterprise, there was a short term pivot to becoming a launcher company. That is to say, it would conduct flights similar to what is being done for Stratolaunch and launch rockets similar to the Northrop Grumman Pegasus rocket. This was spun off into Virgin Orbit. Virgin orbit has procured a used 747 for use as the carrier aircraft (rather than use a WhiteKnightTwo) and will be using a separate rocket called LauncherOne. Neither of these will be used for human spaceflight though.

It should be noted WhiteKnightTwo and Stratolaunch's monster look similar in design. While form often follows function, form also often follows designers. Burt Rutan designed (or led the design) for both.

Bigelow Aerospace

While most of the human spaceflight companies discussed in this thread are building rockets or the means to get INTO space, Bigelow is building spacestations. Or would like to. They have done far more of that than any other company, even contributed to the International Space Station, but they have not, as yet, built an orbiting station. This is understandable, since there is no way (yet) to ferry people except on the Russian rockets and not everyone wants to deal with the Russians. The red tape (see what I did there!) alone is a real PITA when it comes to the ITAR restrictions (with good reason).

Bigelow Aerospace started when Congress shot down the TransHab module for the International Space Station in 2000. Bigelow licensed the inflatable module tech from NASA and began working on commercial space stations.

In 2006, Bigelow launched the the Genesis I module into space. This was to test the technology and interior environment of inflatable modules. In 2007, the Genesis II module was placed into orbit. Very similar to the G1, the G2 had more extensive sensors and avionics. The planned SunDancer module was canceled in favor of the B330 module. That module is considerably larger. However, when it will be launched is a good question. In 2016, Bigelow signed a contract with the ULA to place the module into orbit using the Atlas V rocket in 2020. However, whether it will be launcehd then is an one question, since the ULA has since said it needs the new Vulcan rocket due to the size of the B330. That rocket is still being designed and is unlikely to be ready in two years time.

Ironically, Bigelow delivered the BEAM module to test the inflatable module tech on the ISS. The module arrived at the ISS on April 10, 2016 and was installed on May 28,2016. NASA got a test version of the same module it was designing itself over ten years after it would have put the original TransHab in place. Way to go, Congress? Bigelow plans on using a derivative of the BEAM as the airlock for its own space station.

The ultimate goal of Bigelow Aerospace is to build an entirely commercial space station, where companies and nations can rent space. When this will happen, remains to be seen. In 2016, about a third of Bigelow's employees were laid off. That doesn't seem to have been repeated.

It seems I hit the limit again. More next post.

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