Branson’s Flight

Some reflections from Bob Zimmerman.

[Update a while later]

Here‘s Eric Berger’s take on the significance.

This picture doesn’t flatter her. She’s quite stunning in person.

36 thoughts on “Branson’s Flight”

  1. I agree 10 years ago would have been far more significant. OTOH better late than never. I think there is plenty of room of all players, suborbital and orbital. Knew that Musk and Branson are friends, didn’t know Elon has a ticket to ride…

    My qualm with SS2 is knowing more about how the ‘feathering’ system works. Seems like there is a critical altitude to getting it lowered, below which I am unsure aerodynamic pressures will allow it. I’d have to research that a bit and understand how it works better before I’d be willing to fly.

    I remember the broken jackscrew on Alaskan Air 261.

  2. ” In doing so, these pilots and crew opened a future that is both full of promise and uncertainty. It now seems abundantly clear that spaceflight has changed forever.”

    I don’t know how big their market is but it isn’t that big and the novelty will wear off quickly. Things have changed forever in the same sense as every day you wake up, things have changed forever. Will these suborbital rides change things in a meaningful way? Time will tell.

    “The billionaires see a future in which humanity, constrained for resources such as water, food, and energy, fights ever harder for a more meager share. “We really could go down one of two paths,” Garriott said. “In a few decades we could reach a point where we have to ration birth rates, energy, food, and more in a stark way. Or, we could bring back the bounty of resources in space, and now is the time to start that process.””

    Why not both? The ideology motivating these draconian measures isn’t motivated by saving humanity but dominating it and that wont change. Suborbital tourist rides for the wealthiest on the planet certainly don’t solve any of societies’ problems.

    1. After Kittyhawk, there were few opportunities for ordinary people to fly – a few in the military, a very few others.

      Then, the airplanes got better, and it became a thing for the very, very rich to do.

      Then, it became a venue for wealthy businesspeople to travel in. After WWII, which accelerated not only aircraft development but built infrastructure (paved runways) all across the Earth, air travel became common, if not cheap – until it became very cheap (I saw an ad for tickets from Dallas to Dubrovnik for under $500 RT).

      The same sort of pattern could be seen in the development of the auto. Of computers.

      Why do you think that space flight is different?

      1. Also don’t forget the “Barn Stormers” of the 1920’s, who’d pay for their aviation ‘hobby’ flying WWI aircraft into rural towns, setting down in pastures, do occasional demonstration flights to many people who’d never seen an airplane up close AND…. selling rides to the general public.

      2. Good points, but you forgot the barnstormers in the 1920s and 30s who would give rides to everyday folk for a price most could afford during the depression. My dad had his first ride as a kid in the late 30s that produced a lifelong love of flying and eventually planes of his own.

        I wouldn’t spend $10k for a few minutes past the Karman line, but I would spend $20k for a trip to orbit for a few days.

      3. Because I think people want the real deal and that wont be provided by Branson but could possibly by Bezos, just not with his suborbital toy. I am sure the novelty rides will get cheaper but “space” in this context is different than airplanes because these craft are not on the same type of development path.

        The progress on spaceflight is taking place elsewhere and much further along.

        The development here is that after years of sloth, BO is finally marketing a product and that will allow them to generate some revenue but more importantly gain operations experience that they need for the real deal and not suborbital hops.

        But like I said, I don’t know what the future holds. Maybe BO will beat SpaceX to P2P rocket based transportation. Maybe Branson will develop a larger vehicle that will allow people to experience weightlessness without bruising their shins on the arm rests and bumping into each other. A lot of things could happen. I think for experiencing space, people would rather be in space. To me, that is much more meaningful. I’m not certain suborbital flight will contribute much toward that, other than my thoughts on BO above.

      4. Of computers.

        Personal computer prices are quite odd. Not adjusting for inflation, many home pc’s particularly laptops cost as much in the 90’s as they do today. Technology advances have mostly held off inflation in computers rather than driving down prices until you factor in purchasing power.

        In the greater discussion of billionaires in space; I recall the movie Arthur with Dudley Moore in which to showcase just how rich he was, they had a scene with a telephone in reach of the toilet. Years later, rich would be Gordon Gecko with a portable bag phone. These days nearly every social strata has a cellphone that fits in their pocket, can access the internet, and allow them to listen to nearly any song they want to without taking a trip to a record store to search through limited stock. Yet supposedly the divide between the rich and the poor is the greatest ever in human history.

  3. OTOH, it happened. Until yesterday, it was all talk, promise, and speculation. Take pictures and notes. In a few years, this is going to seem like the deep, dark past.
    Every private venture up until now was to go to the government station in orbit. Now, these guys want nothing to do with government interference and red tape.
    This is going to unleash dreamers who until now could not. Now they can. We will soon have 3 or more companies, (I hope a lot more) who cater to joyriders, speculators, adrenaline junkies (think space divers), and all kinds of space explorers and entrepreneurs who are going to make and lose many fortunes in space. I CAN’T WAIT!!!!
    I hope they let me be a small part of it.

  4. I have trouble seeing this as much more significant than a new roller-coaster at Six Flags. As soon as I studied the flight profile of SS1, I realized that it was a dead end in the sense that it was never going higher than 50-60 miles. The re-entry acceleration is just this side of tolerable but if they ease off, they’ll burn up. Much higher and it just won’t work.

    If they can make a profit, more power to them but that’s were it begins and ends, much like hot air balloons.

    New Glen might have pioneered powered decent, but a little like the Wright Brothers after Kitty Hawk, it’s lost whatever chance it had to be revolutionary by delay. The other players, especially SpaceX make it look sort of quaint.

  5. What Branson did was give the average citizen a peek at what is possible and what is to come. Yes it’s a decade late and others are about to make what he did look silly. Up until yesterday though, the new space revolution went pretty much unreported in the main stream press. Now it’s practically front page news.

  6. I really have to commend Richard Branson for making this flight. He undoubtedly had a number of independent reviewers assess the safety of the flight, but just watching some of the cabin videos from earlier flights would be enough to scare most people.

    Though it’s too bad it took so long, I don’t think that has diminished the event in the eyes of the general public. We space geeks think that everyone is as fanatical about everything space as we are. Well, guess what: they aren’t. Nobody outside our cohort gives it a thought, and they don’t know much about it.

    However, this has gotten a lot of attention amongst the general public, most of whom thinks its the coolest thing ever. They don’t know about timelines or delays from 2004: they just know that a rich guy financed a space tourism company, and took the first tourist flight into space on a privately built rocket. That’s huge in the public eye. It’s huge in my eye, and I know a great deal more about the whole venture than most people outside of Virgin Galactic.

    Kudos, Sir Richard!

    1. It is a nice achievement and the service could be viable for a time before overtaken by competition. What is the backlog on customers?

      A little over 200 flights and he could payback the taxpayers for the spaceport.

  7. The one undeniable accomplishment is ending the notion that hybrid rocket engines are cheap and simple definitively. The next challenge will be turning it around quickly and cheaply enough to make money.

    Both cheap and quick are concepts totally novel to the non-commercial space sector. That will be the lasting legacy.

    1. We’ll have to see what kind of turn-around troubles they have with the hybrid engine. Refueling is harder but they don’t have to deal with wear and inspections. Still, a liquid-fueled engine from SpaceX would have been a better choice, in retrospect. At the time I’m sure the idea of designing, building, and certifying a liquid-fueled engine for passenger service seemed more drawn out and expensive than the sub-orbital project itself.

      Given that the Unity has about the same performance envelope (minus re-entry) as the stainless steel Bell X-2, SpaceX could probably weld up an equivalent liquid-fueled version pretty quickly, if there was a really big market for joy rides and short zero-G experiments, and if it was somehow in a critical path to something else.

  8. I don’t admire any of this. Especially not when Branson associates himself with the maximally odious Stephen Colbert. I’m sorry Musk loaned his name to it, but I can see how an opportunity to twist Bezos’ testicles would have some appeal. I do hope Musk stays off that deathtrap (no LES, no spacesuits, no parachutes, it seems). Bezos’ flying dildo is safer. Musk should set up a Dragon flight for himself and take Branson, Bezos, and Tory Bruno along for the ride. “See, dudes? *This* is how it’s done.”

    1. Whenever Colbert came on I stopped the stream for a while, except once when he was playing with some model dinosaurs. For those who don’t keep up with his mock love/hate relationship with Branson, I would guess his antics completely detracted from the flight. But from Branson’s perspective, luring in ever more Hollywood celebrities and millionaires is good marketing.

      1. I just hit the mute button. Even when Colbert wasn’t on, it came off as lame. They obviously picked the most attractive (and youngest) person in the office to be the onsite host. Even the designated adult/”real” astronaut wasn’t very good. It’s clear Branson doesn’t exactly have a Steve Jobs level of competence in presentation.

  9. The X-Prize flights looked so easy, how hard could it be to do 4-5 times a day with 4 times the passengers? They found out the hardest way possible just how much luck was involved in those first flights.

    I can’t believe that anyone would have embarked on this if they knew just how hard it would be and how long it would take. And all that to arrive at the the same dead end that’s been staring them in the face all along. They’ve made the world’s most expensive carnival ride and should have known that’s all it would ever be.

    1. I also wonder if the feathering system was a non-optimal solution. If you took a typical configuration like an X-15’s and allowed the horizontal stabilizers to pivot up and down like Elon’s Muskalons (or whatever Starship’s body flaps end up getting named), then it would establish pitch and roll control during re-entry without any really odd motions that would require major adjustments to return to normal flight.

      1. I think the feathering system is ingenious, effective, and allows for an exotic look. Obviously a Rutan design, which is a selling point in itself.

  10. I’ve only seen a short clip but it looked to me like the passengers were wearing parachutes.
    Branson glommed on to the success of SS1 and thought it would scale. They were lucky with SS1 and sitting down with a few engineers afterwards and asking if that was really the best way to do it in the future would have been smart.
    That tail “feathering” thing is ancient model airplane technology which figures as Burt was a model airplane kid.

  11. “Elon’s Muskalons”

    George, I kind of like “Elonerons”. Nice idea for an X-15 like vehicle.

    NASA at Edwards back in the 1980’s did do a Schweizer 1-36 sailplane where the horizontal stab could be put into the feather position. The model airplane term is “dethermalizer”. Free flight duration models would have a clockwork timer to trigger the stab after the “Max” (usually 3 minutes IIRC) was achieved so the thing wouldn’t be carried away by thermals, hopefully. I lost a few.

  12. Yep, definitely wearing parachutes. I guess if it doesn’t unfeather you have the chance to bailout. Yeah, no pressure suits just like the guys who flew the Perlan Project glider to 76000 feet. I know both of them and they are far braver than I am. We did some of the instrumentation for the earlier Fossett/ Enevoldsen record flight in a different glider. They had pressure suits they borrowed from NASA for that one.

    1. If they were wearing chutes, the probably knew how to use them. Branson has certainly jumped, and Sirisha is a pilot, so she may have as well. But does that mean that all passengers will have to be trained to skydive and wear chutes? That would detract from the experience.

      1. That would detract from the experience.

        Would it? I suspect for the money, there ought to be an experience beyond the few minutes above 50nm. I would think Virgin Galactic could offer a training experience to include a hop in a high performance jet, a trip on a Zero-G parabolic aircraft, and why not throw in a HALO jump. That could bring the price to about $350,000 for the full experience. Of course, if you already have done those things, then you can opt for the economy experience at $250,000. The training experience can also weed out those who really wouldn’t do well for the sub-orbital flight and you can refund their $250,000 while still making a profit and giving them something.

  13. Emergency parachute use doesn’t require any more training than briefing and bailout rehearsal on the ground. Apart from those who have jumped to save their lives most of the sailplane pilots I know have never jumped and they always wear parachutes and have a reasonable success rate in emergency bailouts. Better if you have rehearsed it beforehand.
    I don’t know what the terminal velocity of SS2 is in feather mode at say 15000 feet. 100 knots or so? Slow enough for manual bailout.
    Clear the vehicle, pull ripcord and enjoy the ride.
    There have been at least two bailouts of sailplanes that I know of where the casual passenger and the pilot survived from a couple of thousand feet or less. One where the canopy fell of and took off the fin in a spin making recovery impossible and the other where lightning blew one wing apart (several kilometers from the cloud). Both in UK.
    In SS2 I can see a failure to unfeather would be fatal if you stayed with the ship.

    1. Mark Borgelt wrote:

      “Clear the vehicle, pull ripcord and enjoy the ride.”

      That is not entirely true. I once watched a friend leave the jump plane and pull the ripcord while he was “standing on his head” – i.e. body vertical and head down. His leg got fouled in the suspension lines as the chute opened and the result was twisted fouled suspension lines. He got down ok but you can get yourself into trouble if you open the chute in the wrong orientation.

  14. I didn’t see parachutes, but even if they were there, of what use? Right at the beginning and end of the flight, when it’s subsonic and in the Troposphere? Even at release they’re near 40,000 feet. For most of the flight, they’re in the Stratosphere and would die from anoxia (and hypothermia) long before they fell to a survivable altitude. Even with a full pressure suit, your chances of surviving a free fall from anywhere near 250,000 feet are nil. I think the record is about half that, and jumping from a balloon is probably less stressful than falling out of a disintegrating supersonic rocketplane.

  15. Well I had a look
    1:19. Those things on their backs are modern emergency parachutes. Nothing like as bulky and uncomfortable as Military emergency chutes.
    Likely Strong or Softie
    As I said I think the main case for them is if the “feather” mechanism fails to unfeather. I don’t know when they do this. Maybe 70,000 feet? If so, wait until below 25,000 feet and jump. Sounds like a good idea to me.
    Wave flying sailplane pilots know to stay with the ship down to that altitude or so, if possible before bailing out.

    1. Mike, I’d be concerned about stability if the booms freeze somewhere in between. If SS2 went into a flat spin, or a slow roll, or a corkscrew, that could present real problems trying to get clear of the aircraft.

      If the booms can’t come down and latch in the ‘glider’ config, I’d think it’d be preferable to try to return them to the full up position in order to maintain some kind of aerodynamic stability in order to enable a jump.

      We’ve seen this failure mode once already. Does anyone recall the flight mode on decent? No one ejected in that case IIRC. One pilot survived the crash, one did not. I can look it up I guess. I vaguely remember something about a failure of boom lock or premature unlock of the boom, something to that effect.

  16. Folks, we are talking about taking a high chance of death or injury to avoid certain death. Nobody would claim that the parachutes are anywhere near 100% but the feathering booms is a known issue and they have mitigated the risk somewhat. Personally, I think the booms are an obvious, simple and wrong solution.
    As the fighter community has called it “attempted suicide to avoid certain death”. Last I looked the F-15 seat was about 75% successful. The Russians claimed 93% for their K36D and after seeing the video of the MiG 29 at the Paris airshow, that’s the seat I’d want

  17. I had a longish response to all this written but my browser disappeared it when I tried to post. Sigh. Thumbnail:

    I looked at other videos and saw the parachutes, as well as stylish 1950s hemets and masks on the pilots. But the passengers were bareheaded. The equipment would cover bailout for a small percentage of the flight profile, post-drop engine failure, maybe if the feather failed to re-lock after reentry. But loss of cabin pressure above 100K feet, failure of the feather to relock prior to reentry, etc. would all kill the crew and passengers. New Shepard has a 0/0 LES that covers the entire powered ascent. Be interesting to see if the passengers wear pressure suits. If so, then it’s just up to the parachutes.

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