Trending: Blue Origin gets set to send thousands of postcards to space and back on test flight
VSS Unity
Virgin Galactic’s second SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, known as VSS Unity, is brought out from its hangar in Mojave, Calif. A portion of the plane’s WhiteKnightTwo mothership can be seen at the right edge of the frame. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

In the past few weeks, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space venture and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture have both had a lot to talk about. Today, both companies delved more deeply into the nitty-gritty of getting rockets ready for flight.

Three weeks after Virgin Galactic unveiled its second SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, known as VSS Unity, the company said it was putting the craft through integrated vehicle ground testing at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. These tests involves operating the plane’s systems under ground conditions that mimic space conditions as much as possible.

“For example, instead of just testing our feather lock actuators at room temperature, we use liquid nitrogen to chill them down to the temperatures they will experience when performing at high altitude,” Virgin Galactic said in today’s update.

The premature unlocking of the feathered-wing braking system was a prime factor in October 2014’s tragic loss of the first SpaceShipTwo, dubbed VSS Enterprise. Virgin Galactic says it has made changes in the locking mechanisms to fix the problem.

Virgin Galactic has gone back and forth in its hybrid rocket motor development program, and it acknowledged that developing SpaceShipTwo’s propulsion system “has certainly been one of the hardest parts of this program.” But after scores of full-scale tests, the company said “we now have a very well-characterized rocket motor.”

Captive-carry flight tests could begin later this year, depending on how the ground tests go. Virgin Galactic has shied away from saying when VSS Unity could start sending paying passengers on suborbital space rides, but it’s likely to take at least a year or two.

“Rocket motor firings aside, some of these tests on the road to Unity’s first flights may not seem all that exciting, and certainly many of them don’t lend themselves to great photographs or flashy videos,” Virgin Galactic said. “For our engineers, scientists, technicians, test pilots, and designers, these are the moments we live for.”

Meanwhile, Blue Origin is continuing work on its New Shepard suborbital spaceship, which already has made a couple of autonomously guided hops into outer space and back from the company’s test range in West Texas. This week, Bezos provided journalists with their first look at the company’s rocket factory in Kent, Wash. He said test pilots could start riding New Shepard into space as early as next year.

Blue Origin nozzle during testing
A closeup shows a regeneratively cooled thrust chamber and rocket engine nozzle installed in Blue Origin’s highly instrumented calorimeter. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Today, Bezos sent an email update to the “many thousands” of people who registered their interest in Blue Origin on the company’s website. The update focused on the company’s tests of the BE-4 rocket engine, which is slated for use on United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket rather than the New Shepard spacecraft.

Bezos said two test positions were being built at the West Texas facility, in preparation for full-scale engine tests that are due to begin by the end of the year. “Having two full engine test positions will allow us to further increase the testing pace,” he wrote.

“One of the many benefits of a privately funded engine development is that we can make and implement decisions quickly,” Bezos said. “Building these two new test cells is a $10 million commitment, and we as a team made the decision to move forward in 10 minutes.  Less than three weeks later we were pouring the needed three-foot-thick foundations.”

Virgin Galactic’s on-the-ground checkouts and Blue Origin’s rocket engine tests may not be as flashy as launching rockets to space. But it’s great that both companies are keeping the world up to date on the small steps that are needed to reach the final frontier. Watch this space…

Image: BE-4 test cell
Final construction is under way on Blue Origin’s isolated preburner test cell for the company’s BE-4 rocket engine. (Credit: Blue Origin)
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