Virgin Galactic Chief Blasts Assertions in New Branson Biography

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WASHINGTON — The top executive at suborbital space tourism outfit Virgin Galactic said an author’s claims that the company faces intractable technical and legal obstacles in its quest to fly paying passengers to the edge of space starting this year are “tenuous and removed from reality.”

The claims were made by Tom Bower in his recently published biography of Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson and in an interview published Jan. 26 by the Sunday Times newspaper of London. 

George Whitesides, a former NASA chief of staff who is now chief executive of Virgin Galactic, refuted the claims in a Jan. 28 email to SpaceNews.

In “Branson Behind the Mask,” Bower said the engine for Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocketplane is a “primitive rocket” that lacks the power to get to space. Bower said the hybrid motor, a Sierra Nevada Space Systems product that burns industrial rubber with a nitrous-oxide oxidizer, has been fired for only about 20 seconds. 

Virgin estimates the motor needs to burn for about a minute to get SpaceShipTwo past the internationally recognized boundary of space: 100 kilometers.

Powered SpaceShipTwo test flights so far have indeed topped out at around 20 seconds. However, Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic’s flight hardware prime contractor, has performed full-duration burns on the ground “multiple times, and the company has even released video footage of one such test in December,” Whitesides wrote.

Virgin has long acknowledged that it is considering an alternative nylon-burning hybrid rocket motor, and affirmed as much in an environmental impact statement filed with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in May 2012.

Meanwhile, Whitesides also said New Mexico-based Virgin Galactic is in no danger of postponing the start of commercial operations for lack of a license from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST.

While Scaled Composites has been testing SpaceShipTwo and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane under an experimental permit, the aspiring tourist line has been working with AST on acquiring a formal operating license, which it applied for back in August, AST spokesman Hank Price told SpaceNews Jan. 29. 

Whitesides says that leaves plenty of time to get licensed before the first passenger-carrying Virgin Galactic flight, on which Branson and members of his family will fly.

Bower also said Virgin Galactic has been barred by U.S. government export regulations from carrying Chinese nationals on its flights due to concerns about technology transfer.

In a separate statement emailed to SpaceNews Jan. 31, Virgin Galactic said its flight hardware is controlled by U.S. State Department export regulations but that the passenger experience falls under a special category that is administered by the Department of Commerce. 

“Virgin Galactic adheres to both the spirit and the letter of U.S. export controls and has for now chosen not to accept deposits from countries subject to U.S. export and other regulatory restrictions,” the company said. “The U.S. government is giving focused attention to these and related issues, and as those considerations continue, Virgin Galactic may adapt its policies in consultation with appropriate regulators, legislators and other stakeholders.”

According to one Washington-based attorney familiar with the U.S. export-control regime for space technology, the U.S. government has already effectively cleared Virgin Galactic to fly Chinese citizens, if the company so chooses.

The State Department in January 2012 ruled that Virgin Galactic could fly non-U.S. citizens, with some exceptions, to the edge of space without obtaining an export license, said attorney Mike Gold, head of Washington operations for Bigelow Aerospace, the North Las Vegas company working on inflatable space habitats for commercial use.

“I can’t speak for Virgin Galactic, but publicly available information regarding the status of their passenger experience shows it was determined to fall under the Export Administration Regulation 99 category, which according to the Department of State’s website allows for Chinese customers,” Gold said.

SpaceNews Editor Warren Ferster contributed to this report.