How Seattle tech titans gave a boost to suborbital space tourism

Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity and its mothership (left) are modeled after the SpaceShipOne launch system (right) built with the help of Seattle billionaire Paul Allen. (Photos by Virgin Galactic and Michael Pereckas)

The suborbital spaceships built by Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Spaceline may look completely different, but financially they have one thing in common: They both have ties to the Seattle tech billionaires.

The link is evident in the case of Blue Origin’s New Shepard missile ship. Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, about six years after starting Seattle-based Amazon – and he said he sells $ 1 billion in Amazon stock annually to fund his privately held space company.

Today the Federal Aviation Administration announced that it has given its formal clearance to launch New Shepard on July 20 from Blue Origin’s West Texas Spaceport with Bezos and three crew members on board. It will be the first manned mission for the suborbital aircraft, which has completed 15 unmanned test flights over the course of more than five years.

Bezos’ trip is slated to take place just days after Branson’s ride on the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo rocket plane known as VSS Unity. Both trips are designed to pave a way for tourists and researchers to get a sample of the space environment, including a few minutes of weightlessness and wide-angle views of the curved earth beneath the black sky of space.

Blue Origin has been headquartered in the Seattle area since the company was founded. But Virgin Galactic, which is headquartered in New Mexico, has a less obvious connection to the Seattle tech community.

VSS Unity, the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane that brought Branson and five crew members over the 80-mile space milestone on Sunday, traces its technological roots back to the SpaceShipOne rocket plane, which was invested $ 28 million by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen was developed.

Allen, who passed away in 2018, said in his autobiography that he eventually won the deal – thanks to the $ 10 million Ansari X Prize won from SpaceShipOne’s privately funded spaceflights in 2004, plus the royalties paid by Virgin Galactic and the tax break Allen received from donating the rocket plane to the Smithsonian in 2005.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo flights should count toward the return of Allen’s investment, according to Ed Lazowska, professor at the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering.

In an email sent just hours after Branson’s flight, Lazowska said VSS Unity was a “direct descendant” of SpaceShipOne.

“Both were designed by Burt Rutan, with Unity using the ‘Shuttlecock’ atmospheric re-entry system developed by SpaceShipOne,” he said. “And the starting approach is the same, with the spaceship being carried up by a huge mothership.”

Both mother ships nestled their rocket planes under wide wings. SpaceShipOne’s mothership was known as WhiteKnightOne, while the VSS Unity mothership was christened VMS Eve in honor of Richard Branson’s mother.

Rutan’s SpaceShipOne concept had to scale up significantly for SpaceShipTwo, which is why it took Virgin Galactic 17 years to bring the concept to the brink of commercialization.

Ed LazowskaEd Lazowska, computer science professor at the University of Washington. (UW photo)

SpaceShipOne is designed to carry a single pilot plus enough dead weight to replace two passengers.

“Paul’s specific goal was to win the X Prize, and the system was designed for that specific task,” said Lazowska. “I remember emailing Paul asking if the astronauts weren’t wearing pressure suits. He explained that the X-Price specification required such a short period of time in apogee that it was possible to pressurize the spaceship from the mothership, ‘put a cork in it’ and avoid the weight of a pressure system and spacesuits. “

Weight proved to be the limiting factor in the development of SpaceShipTwo. Virgin Galactic began with a design that would accommodate six passengers plus two pilots for a flight that reached SpaceShipOne’s target altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles). But in implementing the design, Virgin Galactic reduced the seating capacity to two pilots plus four in the passenger cabin and pursued a goal of 50 miles.

Safety was another concern: three of the workers involved in the development of SpaceShipTwo died in 2007 when a tank of nitrous oxide exploded at the Scaled Composites test site in Mojave, California. In 2014, one test pilot died and the other was seriously injured when SpaceShipTwo’s first spacecraft, VSS Enterprise, collapsed during a test flight. The accident and subsequent investigations led to changes in the design of the rocket aircraft as well as the procedures for pilot training.

After years of testing, Virgin Galactic pilots successfully flew VSS Unity past the 50-mile mark in Mojave Air and Space Port, California, in 2018 and 2019, and did it again in May after the company relocated its base of operations to Spaceport America in New Mexico . The series of successful flight tests should create the conditions for paying passengers to be able to board from next year.

Paul Allen continued to invest in space travel long after SpaceShipOne retired: in 2011, he founded a space company called Stratolaunch, which built the world’s largest aircraft as a flying launch pad for rocket-propelled vehicles. Like Virgin Galactic, Stratolaunch uses an enlarged version of the SpaceShipOne concept.

Stratolaunch’s mammoth aircraft underwent its first flight test in Mojave in April 2019, just months after Allen’s death, and the second flight test took place in April of this year – under new management.

Although the Allen family holding company, Vulcan Inc., is no longer directly involved in the ventures launched by SpaceShipOne, Richard Branson sounded like he was channeling Paul Allen when he told an interviewer, “I promise I will do anything I can. to protect the species on this beautiful earth. “

Lazowska said Allen viewed this sense of protection from Earth known as the overview effect as one of the biggest payoffs for investing in space. “He explained to me that NASA astronauts came back from space with a new appreciation for the importance of managing planet earth, but without the resources to do much about it,” recalled Lazowska. “If wealthy, influential people could have the same experience, it could change the future of the planet.”

Bezos has also spoken about how investments in space could pay off on our home planet. “The earth can eventually be divided into residential areas and light industry, and we can move all of our heavy industry off the planet where it belongs,” he told me in 2016.

Lazowska said the connection between the aspirations of today’s space billionaires and Paul Allen’s vision for commercial space travel should be obvious.

“Anyone who looks at photos of Unity next to SpaceShipOne or Eve next to White Knight will immediately see that today we have witnessed the fulfillment of Paul’s amazing vision,” he said.

Blue Origin plans to stream live coverage of the first manned spaceflight of the New Shepard missile ship with Jeff Bezos on board from 4:30 p.m. PT on July 20 via its website. The start is scheduled for 6 a.m. PT, but technical or weather issues may delay the start.

The picture taken by Michael Pereckas in 2005 by SpaceShipOne and WhiteKnightOne is used here under the Creative Commons License Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0. The original image as posted on Flickr has been cropped.

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