Virgin Galactic reckons it has dealt with an electromagnetic interference (EMI) problem that aborted a recent test flight just as another technical gremlin rears its head.
The news came during a Q1 investor call following the announcement of a $130m loss, down from the $377m loss for the same time last year.
Mike Moses, Virgin president for Space Missions and Safety, told participants that following the December 2020 abort, in which the rocket motor lost connection and VSS Unity was forced to glide back to a safe landing before getting a chance to trouble space, the team had been working on dealing with EMI introduced by a new flight control computer.
While the original upgrades sailed through testing on the ground and during glide flights, the rocket motor took exception and a failsafe abort was triggered during the December flight. "The system," explained Moses, "is designed to translate pilot inputs into commands to move an electric motor and it was the unintended feedback of those motor commands that generated EMI."
Virgin Galactic has since added hardware filters to suppress the EMI generated and improved shielding on the wire harness. "We've reduced the EMI intensity to a level that is over 90 per cent lower than it was before," boasted Moses.
So ready to fly? Perhaps even get a jump on Jeff Bezos in the sending-the-wealthy-to-space stakes?
Maybe not. The carrier aircraft responsible for lugging Branson's space jalopies to altitude and dropping them, VMS Eve, was due to head into a maintenance cycle later this year. However, at the end of last week a "wear-and-tear issue" emerged on the aircraft following a post-flight inspection that merited further evaluation. "This may impact our flight test schedule," admitted Moses. But such is the nature of flight testing.
The test schedule currently consists of four flights. The first will send up two pilots. The second will add a cabin-full of mission specialists. The third will include Richard Branson. The fourth will be a research flight in partnership with the Italian Air Force.
Unlike VSS Unity, the schedule remains up in the air and CEO Michael Colglazier promised investors "an update on schedule implications to our next flight."
Investors were initially unimpressed as Virgin Galactic's stock price took a pummelling, dropping sharply to below $15 before recovering to just over $18. New CFO Doug Ahrens pointed to the 600 "future private astronauts" on the company's books and added: "We plan to reopen sales for a private astronaut market around the time of the flight with Richard Branson," but only for "a limited period of time."
While he did not give pricing for private astronauts, he did say that the company expected the Italian Air Force flight "to generate $2m of revenue, or the equivalent of $500,000 per seat."
Rival Blue Origin recently announced plans to send its first crew into space on 20 July, with one seat up for auction.
Colglazier dodged a question in the call about who would be more expensive by telling analysts that he reckoned that seat in Bezos' capsule "will be a pretty high price" before enthusing that he expected demand to be so great that the question wouldn't be about cost but "how can I get a seat?" ®