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Virgin Galactic's Suborbital Spacecraft Gets FAA Blessing 65

Posted by samzenpus
from the greenlight-space-flight dept.
coondoggie writes "Space tourism company Virgin Galactic today said its spacecraft developer has been granted an experimental launch permit from the Federal Aviation Administration to begin rocket-powered testing of its spaceships. With the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation permit, Scaled Composites and its SpaceShipTwo craft will be able to test the aerodynamic performance of the spacecraft with the full weight of the rocket motor system on board. Integration of key rocket motor components, already underway, will continue into the autumn."
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Virgin Galactic's Suborbital Spacecraft Gets FAA Blessing

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  • by crymeph0 (682581) on Wednesday May 30, 2012 @10:22PM (#40163077)
    When Rutan won the X-Prize in 2004, I was seriously excited. It seemed like commercial suborbital joyrides for anyone with money to burn were happening right then. 8 years later, still no commercial flights. What happened? SpaceX went from first launch in 2006 to ISS in 2012. I know, manned flights require more rigorous design, but SpaceX has been designing for human flight all along, and Musk is in serious contention to get crew flights to ISS by 2015 or 2016. At this rate, we may be able to buy orbital joyrides before suborbital ones. I know Burt Rutan and crew have the engineering skill to get this thing done, what's been holding them back?
    • by osu-neko (2604)
      SpaceX is commercializing technology that we've been hammering out since Project Mercury in the late 1950s. Rutan's working on developing something much newer.
      • by Spy Handler (822350) on Wednesday May 30, 2012 @10:48PM (#40163175) Homepage Journal

        SpaceX is commercializing technology that we've been hammering out since Project Mercury in the late 1950s.

        Well if you put it that way, SpaceshipOne is just a bigger version of X-15 from the 1950's also.

        You know what it looks like to me? It looks like SpaceX's dotcom billionaire (Elon Musk) put everything he has on the line - his fortune, his time, energy, everything - whereas Virgin Galactic's dotcom billionaire (Paul Allen) put a little bit of a seed money, and that's about it. Burt Rutan retired already, he doesn't seem to be burning the midnight oil either. The whole thing seems to be kind of coasting without a lot of funding or urgency.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          SpaceX is commercializing technology that we've been hammering out since Project Mercury in the late 1950s.

          Well if you put it that way, SpaceshipOne is just a bigger version of X-15 from the 1950's also.

          You know what it looks like to me? It looks like SpaceX's dotcom billionaire (Elon Musk) put everything he has on the line - his fortune, his time, energy, everything - whereas Virgin Galactic's dotcom billionaire (Paul Allen) put a little bit of a seed money, and that's about it. Burt Rutan retired already, he doesn't seem to be burning the midnight oil either. The whole thing seems to be kind of coasting without a lot of funding or urgency.

          Burt Rutan is retired. Spacecraft One represents new technology. It's interesting to note that a suborbital flight with Virgin Galactic costs about $200,000. SpaceX is "reducing" the cost of orbiting an astronaut to about $20,000,000 per seat. Reaching orbit is more difficult / expensive, but not by a factor of 100. It's the difference between a conventional rocket / capsule like the Dragon / Falcon SpaceX design and Rutan's Spacecraft Two.

          • by Anonymous Coward

            Not a factor of 100?

            Are you sure?

            Work out mgh for an altitude of 200km vs. 1/2 * m * v^2 for orbital velocity, and I come up with a number over 150.

            • by khallow (566160)
              Cost is not a function of energy or fuel usage. If only that were true. From what I understand, $200,000 is not only the projected cost of a Virgin Galactic suborbital ride, but it is also roughly the propellant cost of putting a Dragon capsule in orbit.
              • No, energy is not the only thing, but a factor of 100-150 in difficulty between sub-orbital and orbital seems very reasonable, if you also take into account the other difficulties. Energy requirement may be a reasonable proxy.
                • by khallow (566160)
                  I think propellant cost is a more reasonable proxy. Keep in mind that most of those "difficulties" are fixed and don't depend (or depend weakly) on launch frequency, such as R&D, launch pads, manufacture infrastructure, etc.
                  • Propellant cost isn't the only thing. The fuel mass/payload mass ratio is much more reasonable for a sub-orbital craft, which means you don't have to cut so much mass, making the engineering a lot more relaxed. And it's not only accelerating, reentry from orbit is a lot more challenging than landing from sub-orbital.
                    • by khallow (566160)
                      So it's more difficult. Again, I don't see that translating into actual cost in the long run. We've increased complexity quite a bit going from a horse drawn wagon to a modern car in a modern transportation system. But the marginal cost of getting from point A to point B is still mostly the cost of fuel and the cost of the occupants' time.
                    • The cost of fuel, plus the cost of the rocket hardware, including its design and quality control. The difference between manufacturing of a car and of a rocket is that a simple bolt in the car is maybe 10 times stronger than required. A similar bolt in a rocket may only be 25% stronger than required. This means that you need very good engineering, tight manufacturing requirements, and good quality control, which are all costly. The design cost can be spread out over multiple launches, of course, but this re
                    • by khallow (566160)

                      The cost of fuel, plus the cost of the rocket hardware, including its design and quality control.

                      My point here is that all the complexity scales sublinear with the number of rocket flights per unit time.

                      but this requires you achieve many launches in the first place.

                      A key assumption on my part is that there are indeed many launches of reusable vehicles occurring.

                    • by khallow (566160)

                      They truly need to be torn down and rebuilt

                      Today. Not tomorrow. It's remarkable how we still think of tomorrow's technology in terms of what we can do today. This isn't some sort of utopian observation (say like "Nanotech will make it irrelevant in 20 years"), but just an observation that difficult problems get solved and we've come a long ways in dealing with such things.

                      the safety margins are much smaller than other technologies, and the wear and tear often greater

                      Even if that were strictly true, so what? My point is not that rocketry is just as easy as any other technology, but rather that the complexity doesn't scale with number of launche

                  • by crutchy (1949900)
                    i think the russians have proven all these bullshit theories wrong... for years
                    • by khallow (566160)
                      You can think whatever you want. Proof requires a chain of reasoning supporting your assertion. That's not present here.
                    • by crutchy (1949900)
                      typical hypocritical dumb shits... of course none of your your bullshit requires any proof (cos there is none)

                      but at least you're right about there being no chain of reasoning here (including throughout your posts)

                      actually both the americans and the russians together prove your bullshit posts wrong. russian launch cost/kg is a fraction of that of the ol' space shuttle, and they both launched to the same height. cost of space launches has more to do with people than propellent... this page explains:
                    • by khallow (566160)
                      If we look at the nearest, non-imaginary analogue to space flight, namely, air flight (it even uses a similar amount of energy for the longer airplane flights as it would take to get to orbit), we see that cost at least among the commercial airlines, is fairly close to fuel costs. Generally, about a quarter to half of a normal air ticket is fuel cost.

                      The biggest difference between air and space flight isn't the technological or physical environment, but the frequency with which vehicles return to use. Fo
                    • by crutchy (1949900)
                      From the linked page in my previous reply (by Jerry Pournelle), he compares space flight today like taking a trip in an airliner and dumping the airliner in the ocean when you reach your destination, BUT... the Russians get around this by mass-producing their spacecraft (well, as far as spacecraft could be mass-produced).

                      the problem with using propellant as a metric is that the relationship of propellant with altitude isn't linear for getting to space (the relationship is actually well understood in the
                    • by khallow (566160)

                      the problem with using propellant as a metric is that the relationship of propellant with altitude isn't linear for getting to space (the relationship is actually well understood in the rocket equation), and other costs are similarly nonlinear,

                      So why is nonlinearity a problem here? And I should have said that the cost floors I mentioned were for a one-way trip to LEO, which admittedly is still poorly defined, but at least it's a fixed destination and bypasses this particular bit of complexity.

                    • by crutchy (1949900)

                      So why is nonlinearity a problem here?

                      its not, but propellant has no bearing on cost/kg, using comparison between russia and united states space launches as example

                      people factors have more bearing on cost than propellant, which is really fuck all in the big scheme of things. if your going to use some multiple of propellant costs for overall launch costs, you could very well use some multiple of the cost of coffee for the engineers and it would be just as valid

                    • by khallow (566160)

                      but propellant has no bearing on cost/kg, using comparison between russia and united states space launches as example

                      How about a comparison to a launch system with far higher launch rates? I'm not arguing for current launch systems at current rates. I'm arguing for mature transportation systems that reuse the launch vehicle, have very high frequency of launch, and for those two reasons, look nothing like any launch system in existence today.

                      people factors have more bearing on cost than propellant

                      People factors are sublinear with launch frequency. The cost of people in R&D is independent of the launch rate. The launch and operations workforce can be more efficiently used ov

                    • by crutchy (1949900)

                      I'm arguing for mature transportation systems that reuse the launch vehicle, have very high frequency of launch, and for those two reasons, look nothing like any launch system in existence today.

                      if you're going to argue about abstract pipe dreams, then using coffee drunk by engineers is probably about as useful.

                      what if cost isn't measured the same way in such future? what about if humanity blows itself to kingdom come before then (highly likely)? what if the US dollar isn't a reserve currency (also possible)? what if aliens come to visit and everything we think we know gets turned on its head (live long and prosper)?

                      Nothing else has to be expended in a rocket launch.

                      if you only consider cost of propellant, then you're not considering overall l

                    • by khallow (566160)

                      I'm arguing for mature transportation systems that reuse the launch vehicle, have very high frequency of launch, and for those two reasons, look nothing like any launch system in existence today.

                      if you're going to argue about abstract pipe dreams, then using coffee drunk by engineers is probably about as useful.

                      Then it's a good thing I'm not, isn't it? The future is by its nature hard to predict, but I think it very foolish to assume that it won't follow the path of other transportation technologies. It just isn't that different.

                      Nothing else has to be expended in a rocket launch. if you only consider cost of propellant, then you're not considering overall launch costs (obviously). the workforce is a much more significant cost factor than propellant, rocket, etc (again, simply by comparison between Russia and USA), and will be similarly influential with any future launch system, regardless of how frequent the launches are.

                      Then answer this question. How many man-hours have to be used in a launch of a vehicle that doesn't require a pilot?

                      There's a reason I look at propellant. That has to be used. Any particular amount of labor isn't required, but one does need to expend propellant with a rocket. This comes

                    • by crutchy (1949900)

                      The future is by its nature hard to predict

                      exactly the point i was trying to make (hence why there isn't much point in trying, including comparison to other transportation tech)

                      How many man-hours have to be used in a launch of a vehicle that doesn't require a pilot?

                      for a space launch, many more man-hours are required than would be required for any other type of transportation, manned or not. when you go flying in an airplane, you don't pass through a region of 2000 degrees celsius as in reentry, which then requires many man-hours of inspection and refurbishment (hence the huge turnaround time for the old space shuttle, and will also d

          • by ThePeices (635180)

            reducing the cost to 20 million USD?

            it *already* costs 20 mil to pay Russia to send you to the space station via soyuz, including training, and has for a few years now.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          If you ask me SpaceshipTwo has great potential, Anything that moves us away from using upside down roman candles to get off this rock is an improvement.
          • It depends. There's not much potential in sub-orbital itself, except as a glorified roller coaster ride. If that's all you want, great. If you want to grow into orbital flights, it remains to be seen how much of the SpaceshipTwo design can be reused. And even if it can be adapted, that still leaves over 90% of the required orbital speeds that needs to be provided by roman candles.
        • by 0123456 (636235) on Thursday May 31, 2012 @12:08AM (#40163499)

          The whole thing seems to be kind of coasting without a lot of funding or urgency.

          The big difference is this: SpaceX is launching pizza to the space station, Spaceship Two is launching paying customers for short trips into space. Astronauts would be annoyed if their pizza delivery was late, but that's nothing compared to half a dozen families crying on TV because you just blew up their mum or dad because you rushed your rocket into service without proper testing.

          • by AmiMoJo (196126)

            It isn't a rocket, and it isn't going orbital, just sub-orbital for about 12 minutes at a time. $250,000 for 12 minutes of weightlessness in what is technically space.

            I'd be more impressed if they were actually going to fly to somewhere, e.g. London to New York. We already lost our only supersonic passenger jets.

        • SpaceX is commercializing technology that we've been hammering out since Project Mercury in the late 1950s.

          Well if you put it that way, SpaceshipOne is just a bigger version of X-15 from the 1950's also.

          Well, other than being a rocket propelled airplane... they have pretty much nothing in common. Different engines, different aerodynamics, different structures, different... well, pretty much everything. Not bigger, different. Very different.

          Falcon on the other hand is, as the OP says, scaling up a

    • I know Burt Rutan and crew have the engineering skill to get this thing done, what's been holding them back?

      They're doing something much harder, with fewer resources, while being tied to scaling up an existing design. And Rutan retired over a year ago.
       
      And what time machine are you using to "know" they have the skill to pull off something never done at that scale before? I could next week's stock prices.

    • My guess is regulations. Have to prove the equipment is safe to operate.

      Can be a good thing, you don't want rockets blowing up and crashing into populated areas, you don't want people paying for a tourist ride and dying regularly (particularly in a country so partial to lawyers as the USA). Perhaps the different flight paths make a big difference.

      I'll let an air regulations expert take over from here - I don't know if Rutan and Musk have to satisfy different regulations because the SpaceX rocket is aimed to

    • Virgin's spaceplane is a dead end. It's that simple.

      It can never achieve orbital velocities and their current design is not scalable. The whole vehicle is nothing more than an expensive analog of a "sports car" - a generally useless toy for rich people.

      SpaceX, on the other hand, produces real and useful technology.
  • At a glance, I saw 'bombing' after suborbital and a company called Virgin Galactic with a Chairman like Richard Branson sounds like it would have a 'Phase 2'.
  • by jamstar7 (694492) on Thursday May 31, 2012 @12:37AM (#40163619)
    and I thought, 'So what? SpaceX is already in orbit and has damned near certified the Dragon capsule.' These guys are still struggling to get their aircraft certified. Once Burt retired, it was like their lights went out. A suborbital ride when an orbital ride is coming available? It's like getting tickets to a 7 course banquet, then showing up and getting stuck at a table with a beautiful view of the kitchen door while the potscrubber drops a bag with a Big Mac & fries on it.
    • by ThePeices (635180)

      and I thought, 'So what? SpaceX is already in orbit and has damned near certified the Dragon capsule.' These guys are still struggling to get their aircraft certified. Once Burt retired, it was like their lights went out. A suborbital ride when an orbital ride is coming available? It's like getting tickets to a 7 course banquet, then showing up and getting stuck at a table with a beautiful view of the kitchen door while the potscrubber drops a bag with a Big Mac & fries on it.

      Wait, SpaceX is getting into the space *tourism* market?

      Really?

      • by sahonen (680948)
        I'd be willing to bet that SpaceX will put anything into orbit that you ask them to, as long as you've got the paperwork in order. Satellites? Check. ISS cargo and crew? Check. Space tourists? Why not?
      • by 0123456 (636235)

        Wait, SpaceX is getting into the space *tourism* market?

        Really?

        I believe they're supposed to fly Dragons to Bigelow's space station in a few years, if Bigelow can afford to launch it.

        • by tgd (2822)

          Wait, SpaceX is getting into the space *tourism* market?

          Really?

          I believe they're supposed to fly Dragons to Bigelow's space station in a few years, if Bigelow can afford to launch it.

          Its listed in their upcoming flight manifest, FWIW. But IIRC, its on the flight schedule *before* the man-rating flights of Dragon, so I would assume the launches they've got planned are to put more Bigelow test modules into orbit.

          I've not seen anything that suggests Bigelow is even remotely close to actually manning their modules.

    • Re:I read this (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Confusador (1783468) on Thursday May 31, 2012 @06:35AM (#40164735)

      SpaceX cargo flight to ISS: $133,000,000
      VG 5 minute suborbital flight: $200,000

      I'm not sure what you're trying to compare.

  • SpaceX should rename to Space(Se)X, and switch to a less traditionnal space tourism business-model. The porn industry has been pivotal in spreading the use of the Internet (much more than sharing art pieces, scientific papers and all that nonsense) : likewise, it will be strip clubs in geosynchronous orbit and zero-G sex experience that will make space travel popular.

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