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Virgin space mothership test details posted online

Bottom-smack brouhaha shakes 'black' mindset?

The firm building jet "motherships" and suborbital rocketplanes for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space joyride operation has begun posting flight-test results online. The move is perhaps an acknowledgement that the SpaceShipTwo programme and Virgin Galactic can only survive by maintaining high public visibility and engagement.

Those interested in the programme of Virgin Galactic flight tests by the famous company Scaled Composites can now look here to see the latest results. Curiously, there's no way to navigate there from the rest of the company site yet - perhaps an oversight.

Scaled had a similar policy of published (if rather bare-bones) logs with the original SpaceShipOne/WhiteKnight effort, which saw SpaceShipOne soar to victory in the Ansari X-Prize contest of 2004. The vast public interest generated at the time was surely a major factor in Richard Branson's subsequent decision to start Virgin Galactic, and to have the space-tourism company's fleet of WhiteKnightTwo "mothership" carrier jets and SpaceShipTwo passenger rocketplanes made by Scaled.

But thus far, there's been no such openness with the flight tests of the new aircraft, though the original WhiteKnightTwo piggyback jet has been flying for some time - dubbed VMS (Virgin Mothership) Eve, after Branson's actual mum.

The secrecy has led to extensive speculation as to test progress, particularly after a recent incident in which VMS Eve suffered a tail strike during a "touch and go" rolling landing and immediate takeoff manoeuvre. It was thought that perhaps the big plane was suffering from inadequate rudder authority. In fact, Scaled subsequently stated that the swerve and resulting bump had resulted from engine throttles having been asymmetrically set previous to takeoff power being selected.

That brouhaha seems to have led to a policy change at Scaled in which limited amounts of information will be released in order to slake the public thirst for knowledge and prevent speculation, while keeping the programme's profile as high as it needs to be.

You can see why Scaled tends to default to secretiveness, however. While the firm is best known for SpaceShipOne and now Virgin Galactic, it has actually done most of its work on military projects of one sort or another. Since being purchased by US military megacorp Northrop Grumman in 2007, it's theorised that Scaled may well be at work on a "black" (totally secret) fourth-gen stealth bomber of some sort.

It probably requires a certain amount of mental adjustment to work both on programmes which must remain completely blacked-out, and others which can only survive in the bright glare of publicity. ®

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