The next powered test flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle is coming up “very soon,” a top company executive said at a conference Thursday, as some observers continue to speculate about the reasons for the extended test program.
Virgin Galactic president Steve Isakowitz discussed the company’s test plans in response to a question during a panel session at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) in Las Cruces, New Mexico, on Thursday. (Disclosure: I moderated the panel; the question came from the audience.) “We have a series of them coming up very shortly,” he said of upcoming test flights. “We don’t normally announce our dates ahead of time, but I can tell you we have one that’s very soon that will also, again, incrementally build us up” to the point where SpaceShipTwo can fly into space.
SpaceShipTwo has performed two powered test flights to date. The first powered SS2 flight took place on April 29, when the vehicle fired its hybrid rocket engine for 16 seconds, achieving a top speed of Mach 1.3 and peak altitude of 16,800 meters (55,000 feet). SS2 made its second powered flight on September 5, firing the engine for 20 seconds, going to Mach 1.43 and 21,000 meters (69,000 feet) while also testing the vehicle’s feathering system needed for suborbital reentries. The long gap between those flights (and the lack of powered flights since then) has fueled in the space industry an undercurrent of rumors of issues with the vehicle’s engine.
Isakowitz, speaking at ISPCS, gave no hint of any issues with the engine, and noted that company’s customer base, now at 650 people, have been patient with the vehicle’s development delays. “We’ve generally found with our customers that they’re a heck of a lot more patient than the media or those in the industry,” he said. “From our customers, we really haven’t had anybody who’s said, ‘Forget it, you guys are taking too long.’ In fact, I don’t think we’ve lost a single person who’s said, ‘You’re simply taking too long.'”