this past weekend Along for the ride, founder and CEO Richard Branson showcased the much-anticipated launch of Virgin Galactic’s first (non-paid) passengers. After the celebration, I had a chance to speak with the company’s president, Mike Moses, who seems familiar with every detail of the operation and the company’s plans to move from testing to commercial flights.
Unfortunately my recorder went on the fritz, but it was enough for Moses to hop on the phone (again) to talk about the next generation of space planes, where the company needs to invest, and more. You can read through our conversation below. (The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)
TC: To start, can you tell me what’s left for testing, and when do you expect to complete the test flight phase?
Moses: The test flight series that we’re in now, and the flight with Richard was the first of them, which represents a change from the more classic and traditional, envelope testing, where we’re looking at aerodynamics and trajectory and handling properties, an operational check. For -out, where we’re validating the experience of the cabin experience, the training processes, the hardware for the people behind and what they’re going to do.
So we’ve designed a series of flights there, three to be specific, that both showcase key product milestones and features, as well as allow us to iterate and develop and optimize that back-of-cabin experience. give time to. But as always, this is a fictional show, isn’t it? The schedule and numbers are going to depend on the result. So if things go well, we think it’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 we got after Richard and the crew got back from the last flight, you know, we know we have some stuff to work on, but everything was great.
Now, we know we’re going to be doing those flights this summer and through late summer, and then we’ll be ready to move forward, as we announced during our last earnings call, a ‘revision phase. ‘ where we’re going to do some upgrades on our mothership and our spacecraft to prepare it for commercial service. There the main focus is on looking at things that allow us to increase the flight-rate frequency. In testing right now, we fly quite slow [i.e. infrequently, not at low speed], because we are observing everything judiciously. We want to start moving away from that, and as we learn, and so we already know, there are some modifications that we want to enable from that to begin with. We haven’t set a specific time frame for it to officially end.
TC: You mentioned that when we spoke at the spaceport, the crew had not yet really been briefed about the experience. I hope that perhaps you now have some more information about the recommendations of Sir Richard, Siriha, who was actually there. Have you got any real feedback you can share?
Moses: So we’re definitely in the middle of all that feedback and debriefing. As you can imagine, there is a lot of data to go through. And in some respects, that data is as simple as the 16 video cameras we had onboard, and syncing them all to see what’s going on, and added that live notes, and debriefs, and audio tracks. who went with it. We’re certainly gathering input, but there’s nothing on that list that I think I’m ready to disclose at this time. We’ll keep people posting as we go.
The usual reaction, that day after landing and the next day, was ‘Things were awesome,’ right? Now this is not a scientific answer, and I want a scientific answer, so we will introduce them to this task.
TC: You touched on it with the ‘revision phase’… Unity is, I don’t know how you would describe it precisely, a production prototype. Can you tell me if there is any special handling for this like out of the first line?
Moses: There is nothing special as part of its design or construction that requires special maintenance. But as a test vehicle and as in our first article, we give it a lot of attention. We regularly dive very deeply on inspections, and as we spot issues, we’ll probably test them and search to make sure we really understand there aren’t any unknowns out there, systems like How does it perform 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 the vehicle performed based on its design envelope. And if we’re closer to the edges of that envelope, we do additional inspections to verify that our modeling and our predictions are correct. So in that respect, it’s pretty much similar to how you would have the first set of articles for new aircraft development, you would create a maintenance and inspection schedule. That is, very conservative. And then as soon as you get used to it, you start taking out that stereotype based on your positive feedback.
But in general, yes, there is a lot of focus on unity. And in the next vehicles some of them will be designed in part of that. We’ve already learned a group like, ‘Hey, on the next vehicle, make it different so I don’t have to look at it every time, I can look at it every five times.’
TC: I think when we talked earlier, you mentioned that you expect several hundred flights, at least theoretically, out of unity.
Moses: Yes, several hundred flights of the vehicle. We set a design envelope where we design for a certain lifetime, and we test that, and then we can always have life extension. Some of that is just a limit… you know, we’re going to cycle 10,000 times instead of 40,000 times, and we’ll come back later and get other cycles when we get closer to 10,000 lives. We’ll go back and add more to it. There aren’t a lot of components, you know, like a lifetime of ‘falling off the cliff’.
TC: You mentioned some modifications that you are going to make in successor or production craft. Can you tell me any of them, when you expect the weight on the wheels and things like that, how it will differ in minor or major ways?
Moses: That’s why we’ve already weighed in on the wheels. And we had our rollout, which is effectively the weight on the wheels, from where we basically turn the key factory assembly into ground tests. So all the systems are set up, and now they’ll start running Integrated Ground Testing, where you can basically run a computer system through its checkout, you can run a flight control system through the checkout… The ground is also on, well, you are not ready to fly yet. But we are in that integrated test.
As far as changes are concerned… when we designed the structure, if you think of it as a skeleton, under the skin, with Imagine and Inspire, we adapted those skeletons, the ribs in those places and transferred where the load was greatest. . Unity was built with the original design intent of scaled composites and flight tests have shown us that sometimes the load is not exactly where it is expected. Unity has a lot of extra load for that load; Visualize and inspire, we are able to adapt the structure and place it where it was needed.
For example, there’s an addition on Unity that I have to check out every now and then, because I had to add extras to it. Whereas at Imagine, it was designed where it needs to be in the first place. I’ll still look into it, but it’s very easy access and very little oversight.
So things like that, let me optimize my inspection schedule. And other simple things – now the access panels are where we know we need them, whereas we had to add them after the fact in Unity. We were able to add to the design, like your quick release fasteners and things like that that reduce oversight, we made a lot of significant changes, all quite minor, but they have a big impact on the maintainability of the vehicle.
And the next step, well, we talked about this, the Delta class of spacecraft, we’re going to transition to manufacturing capability. Unity and Inspire and Imagine are still largely a handheld plane — spaceship, sorry. And if we want to build a dozen or more to get these 400-flights-a-year rates, we need to make sure they’re buildable on smaller time scales at smaller price tags. . So that the next design includes a bunch of that stuff.
TC: It’s really one of the things I wanted to talk about, how do you want to get the credibility and synergies for business operations? Obviously, more aircraft is a part of that, but you know, maybe ground ops or expansion of crew, better maintenance and things like that.
Moses: Yes, you bet. And I think that’s it, right: it’s a fleet, so we have multiple vehicles to dispatch. This gives you the ability to be able to handle anything that comes on unexpectedly, like the weather. And then there’s this workforce – with more workforce, a 24/7 clock, then you can have multiple specializations, or a crew focused on just one vehicle. And the second party, they are focused on the other.
I think our mantra here is going to take it baby steps – we’re not going to try to go to those high flight rates initially, we want to go a little faster, then a little faster, then a little faster. That’s the purpose of Unity in Life in 2022, so that we can explore those operational locks and see where we can apply the multiplying factors when we get additional spaceships.
You know, the business model is a great one, right? But these next few years, it’s quite insensitive that 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, it’s an important step for us, so we want to be prudent as we go down that path.
TC: Can you tell me again why, or do you plan on keeping the flight plans more or less the same? Maybe later down the line with a revised version with six people, that you might have to keep a slightly different profile?
Moses: What we talked about at the beginning of this Q&A coupled with the move from a testing phase to this operational readiness phase. Coupled with this is a profile that has now been set – the trajectories that pilots fly, the technology they use, we will still adapt, but we are not doing major revisions. Those are pretty much all physics-based results. The airspeed we’re at, the angle we’re at, and then the altitude we get, the weight we carry, are all kind of locked-in variables, and there’s not much you can do to change that equation. Huh.
There will be certain trajectory changes coming with the Imagine as it will have more capacity on board, which means its performance will be slightly different, and we just need to verify that envelope. But for the most part, you know, equation-type physics is what you can do, roughly speaking, so we’re limited to carrying only four passengers in the beginning. We can change that, and we plan to see weight reduction in the ship, but again, keeping an eye on the fleet we’re building, and making sure we get a fleet that lasts the long haul. be useful for.
TC: That’s all I have here. Thanks again for taking the time to chat.
You can check out a recap of the recent Virgin Galactic launch here.