Passenger spaceflight is a step closer to reality, following FAA approval for a powered test flight from Virgin Galactic later this year.
The vehicle developer, Scaled Composites, has been granted an experimental launch permit from the Federal Aviation Administration for its suborbital spacecraft, SpaceshipTwo, and the carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo.
"This important milestone enables our team to progress to the rocket-powered phase of test flight, bringing us a major step closer to bringing our customers to space," says George Whitesides, president and CEO of Virgin Galactic.
"We thank the FAA for their timely issuance of this permit, and for their responsible oversight of the test program."
WhiteKnightTwo has already completed 80 free flights, and is substantially through its test plan. The more recently constructed SpaceShipTwo has safely completed sixteen, including three that tested its unique 'feathering' re-entry system.
The company's also successfully carried out ten test firings of the full scale SpaceShipTwo rocket motor, including full duration burns.
But with the new permit, it can now move on to rocket-powered test flights. It will first test the aerodynamic performance of SpaceShipTwo with the full weight of the rocket motor system on board.
Integration of key rocket motor components has already begun, and will continue into the autumn - when rocket-powered, supersonic flights will begin.
"The Spaceship program is making steady progress, and we are all looking forward to lighting the vehicle’s rocket engine in flight for the first time," says Doug Shane, president of Scaled.
SpaceShipTwo is the first rocket-powered manned vehicle ever to receive an experimental launch permit. SpaceShipOne, which went into space in 2004, flew before the Experimental Permit regulatory regime was established.