Wednesday, July 30, 2008

WK2 Rollout Audio Clips

To close out this week of posts on the historic unveiling of White Knight Two, I'm posting some of the audio highlights of the presentations that were made at the media ceremony (these are audio recordings only, no video, but because of software limitations, they have to be uploaded as video files...sorry!). Enjoy!

Part 1: Introductions by Virgin's George Whitesides and Mojave Air and Space Port's Stuart Witt.

Part 2: Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn

Part 3: Virgin America's CEO David Cush announces the exchange program and introduces two of the first candidates.

Part 4: Scaled Composites' Bob Morgan, Lead Engineer on WK2, addresses some technical aspects, and notes the unique working environment at Scaled.

Part 5: Virgin Group's Sir Richard Branson

Part 6: Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan explains some of the unique features of this revolutionary aircraft.

Part 7: Sir Richard, Burt, Will, Bob and David take questions from the media.

Part 8: More questions from the media, and Sir Richard introduces his mother, the aircraft's namesake, Eve Branson.

Part 9: Sir Richard answers some one-on-one questions from TV reporters under the wing of WK2, and discusses how the project is like giving birth.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Governator Snubs Eve

The following text is exerpted from an article by Bill Deaver that was printed prior to the roll out, in the July 24 edition of the Mojave Desert News, and is reprinted by permission. The rollout photos are mine.

Continuing a policy of ignoring one of California's most important industries, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has turned down an invitation to attend the roll-out of Virgin Galactic's White Knight Two.... [And evidently, a subsequent personal phone call from Sir Richard failed to sway the Governator.]

East Kern Airport District General Manager Stuart Witt said he received a "form letter" from a member of the Governor's staff declining the invitation. "The community needs to know we tried," to once again get Schwarzenegger to pay attention to the booming [pun unintended, I believe] space tourism industry being developed here.

While Schwarzenegger is too busy to travel 300 miles to Mojave for the event, a delegation of New Mexico officials will drive considerably further to attend.... "I'm going to be in the unfortunate position of introducing the new Mexico delegation at the rollout," Witt said. While Schwarzenegger has ignored the local space industry, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has been leading successful efforts for several years to attract mojave space businesses to his state.

Witt said his counterpart in New Mexico has recruited two of the three Mojave-based space businesses he has actively went after. Representatives from New Mexico were up and down the Mojave Airport/Spaceport tarmac during the Ansari X-Prize events in 2004, which Schwarzenegger also snubbed.

Witt said Virgin Galactic will launch SpaceShipTwo on regular flights from a new spaceport under construction in a remote part of New Mexico. Richardson has pumped millions of state dollars into the venture. The Rocket Racing League has also chosen the New Mexico venue for its initial races, Witt noted. "They built two brand-new hangars," Witt said.

While Schwarzennegger and his staff have ridiculed incentives for California companies as a "race to the bottom", he is proposing financial incentives to a small Northern California company that builds electric automobiles. The need for these incentives came to light when Schwarzenegger, who has ordered one of the cars, learned that Tesla Motors is being actively recruited by officials in New Mexico.

Legislation to provide these same incentives to the space industry was dumped by the Democrat-dominated state senate.

Above left: Sir Richard wades into a crowd of Scaled Composites employees who have gathered underneath WK2, to thank them for their hard work. Right:The man behind the machine.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Virgin Galactic Rolls Out VMS Eve

As I was shooting for Flight International magazine and, my first images of the huge plane can be seen over at one of their blogs.

In a dramatically staged ceremony hosted by Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites this morning, the new White Knight Two, now called VMS Eve, after Sir Richard Branson's mother, was first displayed to invited members of the media, and then the ceremony was repeated for about 200 people who've reserved seats on the world's first commercial spaceship.

The event was held inside Scaled Composites Mojave headquarters hangar, and began with several welcoming comments, including those from Virgin America CEO David Cush and Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn. The press were seated facing a long white curtain covering the hangar doors, which were then opened and the curtain dropped to reveal the White Knight Two sitting just outside in the bright morning sun, with Scaled's Burt Rutan and Virgin's Sir Richard Branson hanging out of the pilots' windows.

While the photographers were let loose to shoot the plane, Branson and Rutan made their way inside to speak to the media, Burt apologizing as he turned his back to his audience, stating that he just couldn't help looking at the beautiful craft.

It was originally thought that the first White Knight Two aircraft (the term refers to the type of aircraft, with each individual one carrying a unique name, such as VMS Eve - VMS stands for "Virgin Mother Ship") was to be named The Spirit of Steve Fossett in memory of the record-setter, who was also a good friend of Sir Richard's, and the Virgin founder was even quoted in this by the San Francisco Sentinel. In the end, though, the pioneering aircraft was named after Sir Richard's mother, Eve (right. He said, "If you're going to build a mothership, it's only right that you should name it after your mother!" Beyond just being the namesake of the first WK2, however, Eve Branson is the real-life "Galactic Girl", the flying, space-helmeted gal that adorns the nose of WK2, and who will also appear on all the SpaceShipTwos.

For the christening ceremony, Sir Richard and Mum walked to the starboard boom (the WK2 aircraft will all be piloted from this location, the port boom will carry passengers in the production aircraft; the windows in Eve, which is considered a flight test prototype, are merely black stickers). Sir Richard, somewhat excited by the goings on, seemed to pop the cork a bit prematurely, spraying himself, Mum, and the gathered photographers, before turning the champaigne towards the plane.

WK2 is powered by four 7,000-lb thrust Pratt & Whitney PW308A turbofan engines, a spare of which was on display during the ceremony. The original White Knight used two surplus 3,000-lb thrust GE J85 engines which in a former life powered an Air Force T-38 Talon, and which had a notorious lack of reliability. During his talk, Burt made the point of noting that WK2 uses fully certificated engines which will bring a new level of reliabilty to the program.

SpaceShipTwo, which is said to be 60% complete, was present at the ceremony, as well, sitting tall under black wraps next to the press seating area. More than one journalist, I'm sure, wanted to take a peak underneith, but the world will have to wait another nine months for its rollout ceremony. A placard on the shroud read "Coming soon to a spaceport near you".

Many of the out-of-town journalists at today's ceremony were flown up from LAX by Virgin America (VA) on one of their newest Airbus A-320s, christened my other ride's a spaceship. The close connection between VA and VG was mentioned repeatedly, and goes beyond corporate management. VA "Elevate" frequent flyers who have earned enough miles will be able to compete for a seat on a VG launch. In addition, the companies have established an "exchange program" inwhich a number of VA pilots, including Rob Bindle and Rich Gancaster who flew the A-320 today, will be cross trained to fly WK2 and SS2.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Remembering Eric, Todd & Glen: Scaled's Memorial Dedication

With the one year anniversary of the tragedy that hit Scaled Composites' SpaceShipTwo development program coming up on Saturday, July 26, a ceremony dedicating a memorial plaque was held today at Mojave's Legacy Park. It was one year ago that the close-knit, fastidiously safety concious Scaled community was rocked in a test stand explosion during a nitrous oxide cold flow test, taking the lives of three propulsion teammembers, Eric Blackwell, Todd Ivens and Glen May.

The message on the back of T-shirts worn by most of the Scaled employees pretty much said it all: "Our sorrow is great, yet the dream shall never die!" Burt Rutan addressed the gathered crowd, which included family members of all three men, some who came from as far as Alaska and Tennessee.

Capping the memorial service was a missing-man flyover of four National Test Pilot School Atlas Aermacchi MB-326 Impalas (seen here taking off; I decided to just watch and remember, rather than shoot, during the actual flyover).

On the eve of the big WK2 rollout ceremony, it was really special that before celebrating, Scaled stopped to remember those who had fallen along the way. A tip o' the hat to all who put this service together.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

SpaceShipOne Returns to Mojave (well, sorta...)

It's baaack.... Well, in a sense. A replica of SpaceShipOne was installed today in the new Legacy Park at the Mojave Air and Space Port, which is nearing completion. Back in 2005, the X Prize Foundation commissioned several replicas of SS1 to be built for display purposes. One is now hanging in the main terminal of Meadows Field, Bakersfield. These replicas were built from fiberglass laid into the original molds which the real SS1 emerged from, and were produced by a team of interns. And the replica does the original one better: when the National Air & Space Museum hung the real SS1 from their ceiling, the stripped off all the sponsor's much for preserving history as it happened, right? Well, the replica shows SS1 as she looked for her two history-making X Prize Flights, as well she should!

Legacy Park is a joint project of the Airport Board and the Mojave Transportation Museum Foundation. The first display item, Rotary Rocket's Roton ATV was dedicated back on Veteran's Day, 2006. Eventually, the park will be encircled with miniature railroad tracks for use by a local live steamers club, celebrating the other transportation legacy of the Mojave area (the town was originally built in 1876 by the Southern Pacific Railroad).

In the end, this (right) is what it's all about: even before the park is done and dedicated, a father and two sons passing through the area stop and look up, and maybe even dream.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

New Area 51? Popular Mechanics Visits Mojave

In case you haven't haunted you local newsstand lately, Mojave is once again heralded in print, this time as the cover story in the August edition of Popular Mechanics, under the banner of "Inside the New Area 51: Mysterious Test Flights / Secret Prototypes / Next-Gen Spacecraft". Inside, despite the hype, is a fluff piece that does a reasonable job at giving an overview with only a small smattering of errors (ie, the article says there's only one large military contractor here...however, both Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems have operations here). XCOR and Gary Hudson's Protoflight are strongly represented, as are several other flightline companies, but the cover hype doesn't really do justice to the truly amazing things that happen here. The article mentions a visitor - the writer refers to him as either a tourist or an aviation paparazzi, a term I'm sure I've been called on occasion - on a Harley shooting his digital camera at the Rocket Racer through the fence...something that surely wouldn't happen at the real Area 51.

Maybe I'm nitpicking, but it's not just the cover text that has my head's the badly photoshopped cover art: since when does the sun rise occur so far north? (For the non-pilots, runway numbers reflect compass headings, and the artist made the sun come up at 030 degrees!) Mojave doesn't have a Runway 03, it has a Runway 08, and I suspect that in grafting in the image of the Rocket Racer, the artist took a little too much liberty. So, for the record, at the left is the real runway number, with the real Rocket Racing League Velocity SE touching down, albeit when it first arrived at Mojave and still had that ancient piston engine hanging off the back....

Sunday, July 20, 2008

USAF Releases B-2 Spirit Crash Images

The U.S. Air Force recently released several images of the B-2 Spirit of Kansas shortly after in crashed on Guam. Since the B-2 was built here in the Antelope Valley and thus flew through Mojave Skies, and since Mojave's Scaled Composites built the subscale radar test models, there was enough of a connection to share these photos. The Air Force has attributed the crash to water contaminated sensors which led the flight control computers to pitch the nose of the plane up to 30 degrees on takeoff, leading to a stall. What a way to lose 1.4 billion dollars!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Rocket Racer's Oshkosh Teaser

The Rocket Racer was up flying again today, with more gorgeous aerobatics, so here's a few more photos...hope it's not becoming too ho-hum to everyone! Shooting this plane is a bit of a challenge, because it move so fast. Back during the Rutan Birthday Bash, the folks at XCor were explaining to visitors that the rocket's exhaust exits at an astonishing Mach 4, providing such a kick in the pants that if the pilot didn't pull up sharply, the airspeed would quickly exceed Vne (and for all the non-pilot types, "ne" stands for "never exceed"!). With that kind of acceleration, altitudes quickly top 10,000 feet, stretching the limits of my zoom lens.

With today's flight done, the next stop for the rocket plane is its public debut and "exhibition race", as the Rocket Racing League is calling it, at the EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh. Between flights of the Rocket Racer and the rollout ceremony of White Knight Two, which supposedly will be screened at Oshkosh live as it takes place in Mojave, this year's airshow looks like it will have a decidedly futuristic atmosphere. How will mere piston engines be able to survive?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Rocket Racer's Unusual Attitudes

Flight testing of XCor Aerospace's Rocket Racer prototype has resumed this week, with longer flights and more aerobatics. Today's first flight featured multiple passes down runway 12 with rocket ignition over the numbers, a sharp pull up, and a maneuver, such as a roll, below.

Below, pilot Rick Searfoss pulls the racer into a graceful Immelmann turn.

All in all, it was quite a little show, and flight line crews at FTA as well as hangar construction crews at NTPS all stopped, watched and cheered. With the supposed public debut of the Racer at Oshkosh coming up soon, it appears that the folks at the Rocket Racing League have quite a spectacular crowd pleaser on their hands!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Planes of Mojave: Gate Guardian

Sitting silently and guarding the main entrance to the Mojave Air and Spaceport is a former four-engine airliner in fading NASA blue that confuses a lot of folks. I've had people ask about the "707" at the front gate, or give directions to the airport refering to the "DC-8" at the turnoff. But this old gal is neither a DC-8 nor a 707, it is a much rarer breed, a Convair 990A, and though almost no one remembers it, the 990 actually had a name, the Coronado.

The 990 was a growth variant of the Convair 880, produced at the request of American Airlines, who wanted a faster jet to go coast to coast. The 990 was equipped with odd-shaped bulges on the upper trailing edges of the wings, called "K├╝chemann carrots", after their inventor, the German aerodynamicist Dr. Dietrich K├╝chemann. These "anti-shock devices" served to reduce transonic drag, allowing the plane to fly at a higher Mach number, .91, making it the fastest commercial airliner of its time.

The choice of engines was also critical to the aircraft's speed goals. The designers took the 880's General Electric CJ-805-3 turbojet engine (itself a simplified version of the oft-used GE J-79 jet fighter engine) and turned it into one of the first turbofan engines with the addition of bypass ducts and a fan stage, and called it the CJ-805-23. Unlike today's turbofans, though, the -23's fan stage was mounted to the back of the engine.

The 990 entered production in 1961, and it quickly became apparent that the design didn't deliver on the designer's promises. American Airlines was unhappy, and the 990A was produced to try to fix the issues, but it still didn't live up to the performance targets. American began backing out of its orders, and by 1963, it was clear that the plane was a marketing failure. Production was cancelled with only 37 airframes built. Mojave's 990A, serial 30-10-29 (meaning the 29th built), was delivered on May 11, 1962 (5 days after I was delivered!) to American Airlines as N5617 (click here for an image of the plane in American colors from 1966).

When American divested itself of its 990 fleet, serial 29 was picked up by Modern Air Transport and named Berliner Baer. NASA acquired the plane in 1975, where it joined two other 990s, the first and last built. Serial 01 was lost in a mid-air collision in 1973 and ship 29 was bought as a replacement; serial 37, which was destroyed in an aborted takeoff from March AFB in 1985. Serial 29 was reregistered as N713NA (later as N710NA) and was based at NASA Ames, where it was used as a medium-altitude atmospheric research aircraft, studying wildlife migration patterns, ice-floe movements, monsoon behavior in the Indian Ocean and making archaeological surveys of Mayan ruins. In 1983 it was flown to storage at Marana, Arizona.

In 1989 NASA needed to refine the design of the Space Shuttles landing gear and braking systems, and Ship 29 was pulled out of storage and modified as the Landing Systems Research Aircraft, or LRSA; it also became N810NA, and assigned to Dryden. The aircraft's center section was modified with a mounting for a shuttle main wheel assembly, and aft of the main gear well, protective structure to guard against airframe damage from disintegrating tires. To facilitate all this, the aircraft's landing gear retraction system was disabled. From April 1993 to August 1995 it flew a total of 155 flight tests at Dryden and Kennedy to study shuttle tire wear and for flight testing landing gear upgrade developments. The test flights were flown by two-time shuttle astronaut C. Gordon Fullerton. The shuttle tire retraction system held the test article retracted until the 990's main gear made contact with the runway. Allowed loads of up to 150,000 pounds to be imposed on the shuttle tire. Results of the flight tests allowed the crosswind limits of the shuttle to be increased from 15 to 20 knots.

Above left: the results of a shuttle tire that burst on landing. During the last series of tests, the tires were deliberately flattened to evaluate roll-on-rim failure characteristics. Above right: landing during the last shuttle tire test flight in August 1995 at Edwards' Rogers Dry Lake. (NASA photos)

Above left: the shuttle gear mount as it exists today. Above right: the remains of a test tire.

After retirement in 1995, Ship 29 was flown to Mojave, escorted by a NASA F/A-18 and trailing the type's signiture black engine exhaust. (Cathy Hansen photo Mojave Transportation Museum collection.)

NASA images and information