30 thoughts on “What Does Branson’s Flight Mean?”

  1. It’s a fair article, Rand, yet I think you set a high bar with “opening up space to the masses”. Indeed, neither company has done so, and neither will SpaceX anytime soon. At best, they may provide a more routine means to access space. This lower bar has been promised many times and has yet be to hurdled. However, VG and BO might be the first to do so. That must happen first before the masses even have a chance.

    1. I need to pour through this. Thanks for posting. My limited aerospace knowledge may lead to further stupid questions. Bear with….

      1. A little odd it comes from a person at Blue Origin. Should I consume with a grain of salt? Seems accurate tho at least on the surface.

  2. What this flight means is that Mr. Branson’s company is reproducing the flight profile of the NF-104? They even had a broadly similar accident in flight test as what Chuck Yeager experienced?

    This craft is not up to the capabilities of reentry from altitude of the X-15?

    1. How many people can fly an X-15 or F-104? How dangerous are such flights? How comfortable?

      Does that help show what Branson and Bezos have accomplished?

      1. Yes, the X-15 and NF-104 (F-104 modified with added rocket propulsion, gas-jet thrusters for 3-axis control above where aerodynamic controls are effective) only carried a single crew member, the pilot whereas the Branson aerospace tourism flight is a larger vehicle to carry paying passengers.

        My remark addressed that the Branson flight is probably comparable in duration of micro-gravity and the “view out the window” as the NF-104 and not up to the capability of the X-15?

        As to comfort, I don’t think anyone on the flight had serious complaints. As to safety, they did lose a crew member in a test flight owing to improper operation of their reentry-management system. Furthermore, there had been a fatal accident on a test stand with a hybrid rocket motor — was it a different group?

        1. He basically managed to travel as high and as fast as the early rocket aces back at Edwards. Not too shabby for a guy who is pretty much just a really rich clown.

        2. I don’t like touching or bumping people under most scenarios, so the flight didn’t look comfortable to me. There are a few conditions where the phrase, “Get your foot outta my face.” is said out of enjoyment.

        1. Now that’s cool.

          So what did you think you missed? The F-4 also can pull serious Gs and it’s a dog-fighter. Maybe not as good as the F-16 (at least in the sims I tried) but not exactly shabby for the early/mid 60s.

          1. I flew Wild Weasels, when the transition from the F4C to the F4G was happening.. I really didn’t miss anything (I only went M2 twice, in training – but that was enough, it’s kind of boring going fast, straight), but we did everything else that could be done in a fighter, except recce. And that was cool. Air-Air? Check. Air-Mud? Check (not as good as a -16, but the F4E was a HELL of a lot better at it than anything with a strap on gun pod, so take that Navy/Marines!). Nuc? Yeah. Bombs? You bet. SEAD? The F4G was VERY good at that in the late 70-s through Desert Storm. It wasn’t upgraded for new threats, which would have been very expensive so the current insanity of trusting the Navy to do it was born.

            But the StarFighter? I grew up with the F104 and “High Flight” being the TV Sign-off of choice for our three TV stations….Just way, way cool.

            When I was stationed in Germany, our 23rd TFS hosted an annual fly-in of NATO No23 squadrons – we had Germans, Italians, Turks, Greeks, Spanish, Netherlands, Denmark, Canada, all send a flight or two. Great fun walking around and looking at all of them: The Turks looked like someone had beaten on them with a logging chain – the Danish leading edges were literally sharp enough to cut you (I leaned on one wing and my palm was cut). The Italians sent 6 airplanes, with one pilot that spoke English, and one radio that worked – not in the same airplane.

            Still, a lot of fun. I don’t think I’d fit in the ‘pit of one any more, and I have better things to do with $25k so I haven’t signed up for the 15 minute flight in Florida…But I think about it every now and then

    2. The NF-104, by the way, was not simply a sub-orbital “joy ride.”

      The Air Force had the ambition that it would constitute the Space Force, that a crewed presence was necessary for space-based reconnaissance missions. The NF-104 was intended as an “aerospace vehicle trainer” in that it transitioned between flight regimes where aerodynamic lifting surfaces controlled the vehicle in 3 axes and regimes where aerodynamic lifting surfaces were ineffective and thrusters were required.

      Chuck Yeager’s role in his accident along with what “he was doing” with the NF-104 at the time is the subject of some controversy. General Yeager’s side of the story is that his flight was an incremental expansion in the flight envelope as part of a systematic flight-test program to develop the NF-104 in its role of a trainer for Air Force astronauts who would pilot the Dyna Soar or other such military aerospace craft.

    3. Branson’s flight made it to 282,000 feet. The lowest altitude X-15 flight counted as a U.S. spaceflight was 191 – Mike Adam’s fatal flight. It reached 266,000 feet. The highest altitude the X-15 reached was 354,200 feet, an unofficial record set by Joe Walker.

      Branson’s flight is well within what had been considered “astronaut territory” by NASA at the time. (The U.S. has no “official” definition of an altitude at which space starts.)

      The X-15 was capable of sustained level flight at Mach 6; it was made of Inconel-X skin over a titanium structure. With an applied silicone rubber insulator and external tanks, they NASA was once able to push the vehicle to Mach 6.9. On on occasion, the nose wheel deployed prematurely – at Mach 4.2! Though it played havoc with the aerodynamics, the pilot (Robert Rushworth) was able to land safely. After redesign, a subsequent flight (also with Rushworth) saw the nose gear door airscoop deploy at Mach 4.5. Another redesign, and another flight (with the Wile E. Coyote of X-15 pilots, Rushworth) resulted in the right main landing skid deploying at Mach 4.3.

      SpaceShip2, by contrast, is a light-weight carbon composite vehicle, with a light coating of heat-resistant paint (in essence) in appropriate places. It’s designed to reach Mach 4, though at very low dynamic pressure, and for very short periods of time. It doesn’t weigh a great deal more than the X-15, but can carry six people to similar altitudes. It really is a remarkable vehicle.

  3. These crewed suborbital flights will soon come under heavy price pressure once Elon can provide a cheap flight to an orbital hotel on Starship. Then it will be a niche capability, which may find new markets at a much lower price. I keep wondering about middle-level powers using them for recon flights along contested border areas, where they can pop up on short notice and see for many tens of miles into unfriendly territory.

    On a side note I am curious why you think hybrids mandate high cost or slow turnaround for SS2. Sliding a new fuel slug into place need not be much more complicated than putting a new battery into a flashlight. And the HTPB feedstock isn’t much more expensive per joule generated than any other hydrocarbon fuel.

  4. What if SpaceX has 3 starships to use for sub-orbital flights.
    And “purpose” was to see how fast they could be turned around-
    as that something which is needed to know to do Mars settlements.
    And say it has a cap on travel distance of not more than 5000 km or some kind of delta-v cap it doesn’t go over. If wants exceed whatever it is, build 4th Starship which would do it. But sticking 3 ships and seeing how many flights they can get done. And learn stuff.

    1. Yeah, can one of you nerdy nerds chime in on this and other options like putting something on top of a F9? Sure, not a priority for SpaceX considering what they have going on but…

    2. “What if SpaceX has 3 starships to use for sub-orbital flights.”[?]

      Suborbital “point-to-point” terrestrial transportation has been a topic of interest for at least 75 years. George Nield, former FAA/AST Associate Administrator, is keen on the idea.

      The launch vehicle my company, KST, sought to develop, was better suited to the purpose than Starship in terms of infrastructure requirements. The New York investment community found cargo transport the most enticing application. But there was no way, using the technology we had at the time, and the investment we were seeking, to do a routine cargo point-to-point.

      Elon has a chance.

  5. IIRC the NF-104 could only go to a bit over 100,000 feet. How much zero g time does that give you? I get an absolute maximum of around 100 seconds and some of that time will be under power at first so no zero G.

  6. “someone who bid $28M for the opportunity (the money went to charity)”

    This guy is no longer flying and the seat went to an 18 year old so Bezos could say he has the oldest and youngest “astronaut”. Did Bezos still collect the $28 million?

    Fair op-ed and it should be exciting to see what becomes of these products if they do turn out to be things that can be flown frequently and cost less over time.

  7. Rand,
    Agree there is a lot of debt incurred here. Remains to be seen if this ever breaks even or even returns the taxpayers of New Mexico’s investment in “Spaceport America”. A single crash at this point would be an incredible setback, probably fatal for the whole enterprise. It’s nice they got the demo up, but they are a long long ways from being operational. I’m thinking Blue Origin still looks out ahead in the field of sub-orbital joyrides.

    1. I’m thinking that a Concord might be able to pull off a similar hop by reserving 12% of the normal fuel mass for landing, using half of the fuel mass to run four or five Merlin 1D vacuum engines, with the remainder used to climb to 60,000 feet and a Mach 2 cruise. It accelerates to about Mach 3.5 at a 65 degree climb angle as it hits 130,000 feet, pulling slightly less than 3 G’s through the pull-up and climb.

      Sure, it will take a few modifications to make it work. Maybe some Starship type flapping canards, maybe the addition of a Spaceship Two feather system, Maybe the addition of a bit of thermal protect, reinforcement of the structure, cryogenic pressure tanks taking up the luggage area, an RCS system, a complete redo of the cockpit and all avionics, removal of the galley, and rethinking the lavatories.

      But you’d be starting with a proven, certified airframe, and then modifying it by combining the engineering talent of BAE and EADS, with help from NASA and ESA. Then add the regulation and oversight of the FAA and the EASA, and combine all that with the proven development track record of Virgin Galactic. If you do all that, and pour in billions for twenty years, you’d eventually have four or five Merlin 1D vacuum engines that would work every time, and the dream of giving almost a hundred people at a time a three or four minute zero-G hop.

      1. Didn’t the Hawker Siddeley Trident airliner have a version with a rocket engine as a take-off assist?


      2. Well, lets start with the way Concorde was pressurized – pump it in faster than it leaks out. Not sure that would work in space. Never mind the risk of a sudden depressurization.

        Also, the Concorde was already fuel constrained. Many flights had to land in Gander before they could continue to JFK. So, not a lot of room for different fuels for the rocket engines.

      3. From the pictures of the inside of the Concord I’ve see, there was barely room for one person to get up and go to the head let alone all of them floating around. The number that wouldn’t be able to deploy their air sick bag doesn’t bear thinking about.

        In any case, getting to the top of the trajectory is the easy part, it’s getting back down without becoming a meteor that’s tricky. Absent the fuel for a powered decent, air friction is the only option. It is then a very delicate balance between energy in and out where the air is still so thin that convective heat transfer is limited. So you’d better include re-skinning your Concord in a super alloy and I doubt that would do it.

        This was the bind the Shuttle was in magnified by much higher speed.

        1. SpaceShip One and Two re-entered and they had carbon fiber skins with a thin ablative coating on some key areas, such as leading edges. Those are likely more heat sensitive than aluminium (the Concorde was built with British and French spellings), but the Concordes leading edges and a few other key areas could be changed to titanium. The cost is irrelevant because the airframe can handle almost infinite spending.

          Anyway, back in 2019 there was a failure in SS2’s horizontal stabilizer, discussed in a Washington Post article and a book.

          In an interview Monday, Moses, the Virgin Galactic president, said that while the company did “discover physical damage” to the stabilizer, there “was no noticeable effect in flight with the pilots or mission control. No one noticed that issue in real time. There was no impact on the flying qualities.”

          He said the problem occurred when thermal protection coating was applied incorrectly and ended up blocking vents intended to allow air inside the stabilizer to escape as the atmospheric pressure decreased outside the craft as it flew higher.

          Internal air pressure popped open a seam.

  8. I wonder if Musk was the secret winner of the auction? That’d be pretty funny, and yet another way for him to twist Bezos’ nutmegs, and he wouldn’t miss the $28mil. “See Jeff? I had breakfast in bed with Branson, and I wouldn’t fly on your contraption if you paid me…”

  9. “Didn’t the Hawker Siddeley Trident airliner have a version with a rocket engine as a take-off assist?

    One version did.
    It had a small jet engine in the tail in addition to the usual one. So the Brits managed to build the world’s only (AFAIK) 4 engine 3 engined airliner. Brit engineering sometimes has great ideas that are carried out not so well.

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