Pinning down a SpaceShipTwo launch date

The latest parlor game in the space community has been trying to guess when Virgin Galactic will perform the first powered flight of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle. After SS2′s latest glide test, on April 12, the assumption has been that the vehicle’s next flight would be its first powered flight: the company had previously indicated that it would perform at least three glide flights of SS2 in a “powered flight” configuration, and the April 12th flight was the third such flight, all apparently successful. There were even rumors that SS2 would fly on April 22, but that date came and went without a flight.

There’s a new potential date for that flight, and it comes from an authoritative source. Speaking with the Las Vegas Sun on Tuesday, Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, Virgin Galactic’s parent, said a powered flight was imminent. “We’re hoping to break the sound barrier. That’s planned Monday,” he said. “We’ll break the sound barrier Monday and from there, we build up through the rest of the year, finally going into space near the end of the year.” That would seem to indicate that April 29th is the day of SS2′s powered flight, weather and technology permitting.

Virgin Galactic officials have not confirmed that date. “Test flight schedules have to remain flexible to be responsive to weather and a host of other factors, so [I] can’t give you a specific date,” Virgin Galactic president and CEO George Whitesides told Discovery.com. He did say that the company was “getting close” to that powered flight.

A key government official also indicated that SS2 was about to perform a powered flight. “They’re very, very close to doing their first rocket-powered test flight,” said George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, at a public meeting of the National Research Council’s Committee on Human Spaceflight in Washington on Monday. Nield wasn’t more specific about the date, other than “later on this spring.” Nield, like Branson, said Virgin would perform an incremental series of test flights, leading to a trip to space by late this year.

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