Virgin Galactic president Mike Moses on what’s next for the company’s growing fleet

Business

TechCrunch 16 July, 2021 - 01:33pm 12 views

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This last weekend featured the much-ballyhooed launch of Virgin Galactic’s first (nonpaying) passengers, with founder and CEO Richard Branson along for the ride. After the festivities, I had the chance to talk with the company’s president, Mike Moses, who seems to be familiar with every detail of the operation and the company’s plans for going from test to commercial flights.

Unfortunately my recorder went on the fritz, but Moses was kind enough to hop on the phone later in the week to talk (again) about the next generation of spaceplanes, where the company needs to invest, and more. You can read through our conversation below. (Interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)

TC: To begin with, can you tell me what’s left to test, and when do you expect to finish the test flight phase?

Moses: The test flight series that we’re kind of in right now, and the flight with Richard was the first of those, represents a shift from what was more classic and traditional, envelope testing, where we’re looking at aerodynamics and trajectories and handling qualities, to more of an operational check-out, where we are validating cabin experience experiences, training procedures, hardware for the folks in the back and what they’re going to go through.

So we’ve laid out a series of a few flights there, three to be specific, that both demonstrate key product milestones and features, as well as allow us time to iterate and develop and optimize some of that back-of-cabin experience. But as always, that’s a notional schedule, right? The schedule and the numbers are going to depend on the results. So if things go well, we think that’s a three-flight series if we find things that we need to adjust, we’ll add more as needed based on what we’re learning.

Based on the results that we got after Richard and crew came back from the last flight, you know, we know we have some stuff to work on but but everything was pretty much thumbs up.

TC: You mentioned when we talked at the Spaceport, the crew hadn’t yet really been debriefed about the experience. I’m hoping maybe you have a little more information now about recommendations from Sir Richard, from Siriha, from everybody that was actually up there. Have you gotten any substantive feedback that you can share?

Moses: So we are definitely in the middle of all that feedback and debriefing. As you might imagine, there’s a lot of data to go through. And in some cases, that data is as simple as the 16 video cameras that we had onboard, and getting them all synced up to see that what’s happening where, and couple that with live notes, and debriefs, and the audio tracks that went with it. We are definitely gathering up the inputs, but there’s nothing on that list that I think I’m ready to disclose at this time. We’ll keep folks posted as we go.

The general feedback, post-landing both that day and the next day, was ‘things were awesome,’ right? Now that’s not a scientific answer, and I want the scientific answer, so we’re gonna make them go through the work to debrief.

TC: You touched on this with the ‘modification phase’… Unity is, I don’t know how exactly you’d describe it, a production prototype. Could you tell me whether there’s any special upkeep for it as the sort of first off the line?

Moses: There’s nothing special as part of its design or build that requires special upkeep. But as a test vehicle and as our first article, we give it a lot of extra attention. We dive in pretty deep on inspections, both regularly and as we see issues, we would probably, test those and explore just to make sure we truly understand that there’s no unknowns out there, things like how the system performs how it does in cold temperatures, under load and under stress. We keep an eye on it.

There’s a series of measurements that we make to say, you know, where did the vehicle perform based on its design envelope. And if we’re close to the edges of any of that envelope, we go do extra inspections to validate that our modeling and our predictions are right. So in that regard, it’s pretty similar to how you would have a first set of articles coming out for a new aircraft development, you would build a maintenance and inspection program. That is, an extremely conservative one. And then as you use it, you start to pull out that conservatism based on your positive feedback.

But in general, yes, Unity does get a lot of extra attention. And the next vehicles will have some of that designed in part of that. We’ve already learned a bunch of, like, ‘hey, on the next vehicle, make this different so I don’t have to look at it every time, I can look at it every five times.’

TC: I think that when we when we talked before, you mentioned that you expect multiple-hundred flights, at least theoretically, out of Unity.

Moses: Yeah, multiple-hundred flights of the vehicle. We set a design envelope where we designed for a certain lifetime, and we we tested to that, and then we can always go do life extension. Some of that is just a limitation of… you know, we’re going to cycle the stuff 10,000 times rather than 40,000 times, and we’ll come back later and get the other cycles when we get closer to the 10,000 life. We’ll go back and add more to it. There’s not a lot of components that have, you know, like a ‘fall off the cliff’ type of lifetime.

Moses: So we’ve already done weight on wheels. And we had our rollout, which is effectively that weight on wheels, where we transition from, basically major factory assembly into ground tests. So all of the systems are installed, and now they’re gonna start to run integrated ground testing, where you can basically go run a computer system through its checkouts, you can run the flight control system through checkouts… you’re still on the ground, right, you’re not yet ready to fly. But we are in that integrated testing.

As far as changes… when we designed the structure, if you think about it as the skeleton, under the skin, with Imagine and Inspire, we optimized and moved those skeletons, the ribs in the spars, to the locations where the load was highest. Unity was built off of the original design intent of Scaled Composites, and flight tests, they’ve shown us that sometimes that load is not exactly where it is expected. There’s a lot of extra weight in Unity to account for that load; Imagine and Inspire, we’re able to optimize and put the structure right where it needed to be.

There’s a joint, for example, on Unity that I have to go look at every time, because I had to add extra to it. Whereas on Imagine, it was designed to where it should be in the first place. I’ll still look at it, but it’s much easier access and a much shorter inspection.

So things like that, that let me optimize my inspection schedule. And other just simplistic things — there are now access panels where we know we need them, whereas we had to kind of add them after the fact in Unity. Your quick release fasteners and things like that, that make inspections shorter, we were able to add into the design, we made a pretty significant number of changes like that, all fairly minor, but they have a large effect on the maintainability of the vehicle.

And the next phase, right, we talked about this, the Delta class of spaceships, we’re going to make changes for manufacturability. Unity and Inspire and Imagine are still fairly one-off hand-built aircraft — spacecraft, sorry. And if we want to go build a dozen or more to get to these 400-flight-a-year rates, we need to make sure they’re manufacturable at a smaller price tag in a smaller time scale. So that next design will incorporate a bunch of that stuff.

TC: That’s actually one of the things I wanted to talk about is how you get to the reliability and cadence that you want to have for commercial operation? Obviously, more aircraft is one part of that, but you know, maybe expanding ground ops or crew, better maintenance and stuff like that.

Moses: Yeah, you bet. And I think that’s it, right: It’s a fleet, so we have multiple vehicles for dispatch. That gives you capacity to be able to handle anything that comes up unexpected, like weather. And then it’s the workforce — with more workforce, a 24/7 clock, then you can have multiple expertises, or a crew focused on just one vehicle. And the second crew, they’re focused on the second one.

I think our mantra here is going to be to take it in baby steps — we’re not going to try to go to those high flight rates initially, we want to get a little faster, then a little faster, then a little faster. That’s kind of Unity’s purpose in life in 2022, to allow us to go explore those operational cadences and see where we can apply multiplying factors for when we get additional spaceships.

You know, the business model is a great one, right? But in these next couple of years, it’s fairly insensitive to whether I’m doing eight flights or 10 flights or 12 flights with Unity. I mean, in terms of revenue, it doesn’t move the needle very much. But in terms of operational learning, that’s a significant step for us, so we want to be prudent with how we proceed down that path.

TC: Can you can you tell me again why, or whether, you plan on keeping the flight plans more or less the same? Maybe there’s possibility, later down the line with the revised version with six people in it, that you might have to have a slightly different profile?

Moses: That’s kind of coupled with what we talked about at the beginning of this Q&A, the move from a test phase into this operational readiness phase. Coupled with that is a profile that is now set — the trajectory that the pilots fly, the techniques they use, we’ll still optimize, but we’re not making major revisions. Those are all pretty much physics-based results. The airspeed we’re at, the angles that we’re at, and the subsequent altitude we get to, the weight we carry, are all kind of locked-in variables, and there’s not much you can do to change that equation.

There’ll be some definite trajectory changes that come along with Imagine because it will have more capacity on board, which means it’ll have a slightly different performance, and we just need to go verify that envelope. But for the most part, you know, the physics of the equation kind of set what you can do, roughly speaking, so that’s why we’re limited to only carrying four passengers here initially. We can change that, and we do plan on looking at weight reductions in the ship, but again, with an eye towards the fleet that we’re building, and make sure we get a fleet that is serviceable for the long haul.

TC: That’s all I’ve got here. Thanks again for taking the time to chat.

You can watch a recap of the recent Virgin Galactic launch here.

Read full article at TechCrunch

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The Late Show with Stephen Colbert 16 July, 2021 - 09:01pm

Ashton Kutcher was set to fly into space. Mila Kunis wasn't happy

CNN 16 July, 2021 - 09:01pm

Updated 8:11 AM ET, Fri July 16, 2021

Mila Kunis convinced Ashton Kutcher to ditch ticket to space aboard Virgin Galactic

New York Post 16 July, 2021 - 01:23pm

By Will Feuer

July 16, 2021 | 2:23pm | Updated July 16, 2021 | 2:31pm

Actor and investor Ashton Kutcher revealed that he bought a ticket to go to space on one of Virgin Galactic’s next flights — but then sold the ticket back to the company at the behest of his wife, Mila Kunis.

“When I got married and had kids, my wife basically encouraged that it was not a smart family decision to be heading into space when we have young children, so I ended up selling my ticket back to Virgin Galactic,” Kutcher told Cheddar News in an interview Wednesday. “I was supposed to be on the next flight, but I will not be on the next flight.”

Virgin Galactic successfully flew its co-founder Sir Richard Branson and team members Sirisha Bandla, Beth Moses and Colin Bennett as well as pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci to the edge of space last week on the company’s first crewed flight.

The company plans to conduct one more test flight before it starts flying commercial trips.

More than 600 people have reserved tickets for the company’s space flights so far, ranging in price from $200,000 to $250,000.

The company is expected to open more tickets up for sale soon.

“I will not be on the next flight, but at some point, I’m going to space,” Kutcher added in the interview.

Kutcher’s announcement comes at a critical moment in space tourism, as both Virgin Galactic and the Jeff Bezos-owned Blue Origin prepare to launch commercial operations for the public in the coming months.

Blue Origin is preparing to launch Bezos as well as the company’s first paying customer into space on Tuesday.

Blue Origin has yet to open ticket sales to the public or disclose its anticipated prices. That’s expected following the company’s maiden crewed voyage.

Why Ashton Kutcher sold his ticket to space after talking with Mila Kunis

Yahoo Entertainment 15 July, 2021 - 03:28pm

The actor-investor revealed he had a seat on Richard Branson's next flight, but realized going to space shouldn't be a priority over his family.

"When I got married and had kids, my wife basically encouraged that it was not a smart family decision to be heading into space when we have young children. So I ended up selling my ticket back to Virgin Galactic," Kutcher told Cheddar News. "And I was supposed to be on the next flight, but I will not be on the next flight." 

Kunis may have talked some sense into her husband for now, but the actor has plans to take that trip.

"At some point, I'm going to space," he added.

Kutcher reportedly dropped $200,000 for a spot on Virgin Galactic in 2012, right around the time he and Kunis started seeing each other. Things quickly turned serious for the former That '70s Show co-stars, as they wed in 2015. The actors share two kids: daughter Wyatt, 6, and son Dimitri, 4. 

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Ten years ago actor Ashton Kutcher was planning to be among the first people to ride on Virgin Galactic's private spaceship, but he changed his mind after having children with Mila Kunis. The former "Two and a Half Men" star said he was supposed to be on the next Virgin Galactic flight but pulled out years ago. British entrepreneur Richard Branson and five other Virgin Galactic employees on Sunday took the first fully crewed test flight to space.

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Mila got Ashton to sell back ticket for next Virgin Galactic flight

Daily Mail 15 July, 2021 - 02:53pm

By Sameer Suri For Dailymail.com

Ashton Kutcher has revealed that he bought a ticket for the next Virgin Galactic flight into space - only to then sell it back.

The 43-year-old shared his wife Mila Kunis persuaded him not to go on account of their children Wyatt, six, and Dimitri, four. 

'When I got married and had kids my wife basically encouraged that it was not a smart family decision to be heading into space when we have young children,' the Punk'd star shared in an interview with Cheddar News.

Close but no cigar: Ashton Kutcher told Cheddar News that he bought a ticket for the next Virgin Galactic flight into space - only to then sell it back

'So I ended up selling my ticket back to Virgin Galactic and I was supposed to be on the next flight but I will not be on the next flight,' he said.

'But at some point I’m going to space!' insisted Ashton, who met Mila while they acted together on That '70s Show and has been married to her since 2015.

Ashton's revelation comes just days after Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson boarded the company's first flight into space.  

'Not a smart family decision': The 43-year-old revealed his wife Mila Kunis persuaded him not to go on account of their children Wyatt, six, and Dimitri, four; the couple are pictured in 2018

Actor and investor @aplusk says he was supposed to be on the next Virgin Galactic flight, but sold his ticket to space. ¿¿ Don't miss the full interview on Cheddar at 3:20 p.m. ET. https://t.co/fi07qhm3FE pic.twitter.com/HVMei8mnrZ

Sir Richard and five of his employees boarded a space plane called the VSS Unity and the flight lasted about an hour before touching safely back down to Earth.

The charismatic billionaire traveled up 280,000 feet from the ground and broke free of the planet's gravitational pull despite remaining in its orbit. 

He bumped up his flight to earlier than the initial scheduled date in order to defeat Amazon tycoon Jeff Bezos in their space race. 

Up he goes:  Last weekend Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson boarded the company's first flight into space; he is pictured the day of his flight after touching down safely

Meanwhile Mila has been up in Toronto filming an upcoming Netflix movie adaptation of Jessica Knoll's 2015 novel Luckiest Girl In the World. 

'Our whole family is already co-dependent, so this pandemic just feeds into our entire co-dependency,' she told Entertainment Tonight this January.

'And my husband and I were super co-dependent for like eight years and in this pandemic our kids are like: "Where are you going?" And I was like: "The bathroom." We haven't left each other. We're in the house.'

Thrilling: The charismatic billionaire traveled up 280,000 feet from the ground and broke free of the planet's gravitational pull despite remaining in its orbit

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