Virgin Galactic president and CEO George Whitesides offered Saturday some clarity on the company’s plans to move ahead with the next phase of test flights of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle. Speaking at the 100 Year Starship Study Symposium in Orlando, Florida, Whitesides noted that SpaceShipTwo has not been in active test flights in recent months (the last test flight in Scaled’s SS2 flight log is from June 27.) “We’ve had the vehicle basically in the hangar for the last couple months… working on some mods,” he said. “Now, you’ll I think over the next couple months greater activity of both vehicles,” referring SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo.
Those upcoming flights through the rest of this year will still be unpowered, though, he said. Plans call for integrating SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid rocket motor into the vehicle early next year and start rocket-powered flight tests. “Our current aspiration is to try to get to some definition of space by the end of next year,” he said. He was vague on what “some definition” is; while the Kármán line, a widely-used definition of space is 100 kilometers, US government agencies award astronaut wings for flights to 50 miles (80 kilometers).
After that, he said, entering commercial operations will depend on two “big tasks”: transferring flight operations form Mojave to Spaceport America in New Mexico (a formal dedication of the spaceport’s main terminal building is planned for October 17), and getting a launch license from the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. “We don’t release a more precise public schedule” for beginning commercial operations, he added, to avoid putting schedule pressure on their engineers, he said. That’s consistent with past comments by Virgin officials that they’ll be ready to fly when it’s safe to do so, and not before.
Whitesides’ comments about SpaceShipTwo testing was part of a broader keynote at the conference, which is focusing on what technological and other breakthroughs are needed to develop an interstellar mission in the next century. His focus, by comparison, was on the near term. “We’re trying to do something, when it comes to suborbital space, that is doable today. That’s what’s exciting about Galactic and some of the other companies out there,” he said. “We’re trying to tackle a problem that is doable today.”
Still, he and others are supporting of the long-term vision at the conference. His talk included a video from Sir Richard Branson. “I think what you’re doing here is both important and absolutely fascinating,” Branson said.