The passenger-carrying suborbital SpaceShipTwo is headed for more aggressive testing ? a step-by-step shakeout of the vehicle before entering commercial operation.
Spaceport America, a facility under construction in New Mexico, is to be home base for Virgin Galactic, giving pay-for-view passengers face time with space. From here, round-trip treks to the edge of space will take place. Overall completion of the spaceport is at 75 percent and the terminal/hangar is some 30 percent built.
Buoyed by progress to date on SpaceShipTwo and its carrier plane WhiteKnightTwo, British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, said during Oct. 22 runway dedication festivities here: "The last few weeks have been some of the most exciting in Virgin Galactic's development. Our spaceship is flying beautifully and will soon be making powered flights, propelled by our new hybrid rocket motor, which is also making excellent progress in its own test program."
More momentum is in evidence with The Spaceship Company (TSC), which broke ground Nov. 9 on its new Final Assembly, Integration and Test Hangar at Mojave Air and Space Port in California. TSC's mission is to build the fleet of SpaceShipTwos and WhiteKnightTwos for its customer Virgin Galactic.
Climbing into space
Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, cast his eyes on what's ahead for the spaceliner firm.
Whitehorn said more SpaceShipTwo glide tests are in the offing. Those tests will include a high-altitude drop of the craft that will allow the pilots to feather and unfeather the SpaceShipTwo's novel, care-free tail section used during the fall back into Earth's atmosphere. This configuration allows a "hands-off" re-entry to Earth and greatly reduces aerodynamic and thermal loads on the craft.
These tests will be followed by attachment of the spaceplane's hybrid rocket motor. [Photo: SpaceShipTwo over Spaceport America]
"There will be very short firings of the motor, and then we'll extend those burns and we'll start climbing into space," Whitehorn told SPACE.com. "I think we can pretty safely say now that we'll be in space in 2011. It's taken a little bit longer. But the point is that it has been done safely."
"Job number one"
George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, told SPACE.com that starting spaceliner operations is a challenging endeavor.
"There are a lot of different pieces to it. Job number one is to continue progressing and to eventually finish the flight test program safely and build a set of vehicles that can be flown safely with precious cargo," Whitesides said.
Ahead for Virgin Galactic is obtaining a commercial license from the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation, as well as setting up successful, well-run operations at Spaceport America, Whitesides said. Virgin Galactic and the FAA are working together, he said, to meet safety and oversight matters.
"There's no question that we're in new territory," Whitesides added.
"Sea-check" for space
Virgin Galactic anticipates eventually having five spaceships and two carrier aircraft. [Video: SpaceShipTwo's First Solo Glide Test.]
"Obviously, that won't happen year one. We need to build this out and it depends, in part, on business reality. How many people are buying seats," Whitesides said."We'll keep having new vehicles come on line. Part of our job will be to see how each vehicle is doing, a 'sea-check' for space if you will?to make sure that we have faith that they're safe.
"We're targeting getting into space next year?and we'll see whether that entails commercial [flights] or not. We'll go commercial once we have confidence in the vehicle and how it performs. Clearly, we want to do more than one flight to space before we start flying people. So we'll need to see how the vehicle's feeling to the test pilots as we make a decision, along with the FAA, when we start flying commercial," Whitesides said.
The No. 1 job now, Whitesides said ? not to minimize other issues ? "is building a vehicle that we feel is safe to go into commercial operations. And if we do that, then everything else becomes possible."
- Video: Virgin Galactic: Where We are Now and Where We're Going
- Photos: SpaceShipTwo's First Solo Test Flight, Video of the Flight
- Top 10 Private Spaceships Becoming Reality
Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.