For SpaceShipTwo, focus on the engine, not the license

SS2 first powered flight

SpaceShipTwo during its first powered test flight on April 29, 2013. It has made only two powered flight since then, something that may be a bigger concern than whether it has a launch license yet. (credit: Virgin Galactic/

Since the third powered SpaceShipTwo test flight early this month, the vehicle has flown again, although not under rocket power: a glide flight January 17 that, for the first time, had a former NASA astronaut at the control: Rick “C.J.” Sturckow, who flew on four Space Shuttle missions before joining Virgin last year. On Thursday, Virgin released information on the liquid-propellant engines its developing for its LauncherOne small satellite launcher, called NewtonOne and NewtonTwo. The engines, which use RP-1 and liquid oxygen, have completed an initial series of hot-fire tests.

Virgin, though, has been getting attention for something it hasn’t done yet: obtain a license from the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) for commercial SpaceShipTwo flights. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) ominously warned that Virgin’s customers “could be grounded by FAA” because the company has yet to receive its license from the FAA. Those concerns got picked up in other media: “Regulations Could Delay or Prevent Space Tourism” declared a post on Slashdot. “Virgin Galactic Started Selling Tickets to Space Before Getting Permission to Take People There” said Smithsonian Magazine, hinting that what Virgin was doing was perhaps illegal, or at least unethical.

The reality of the situation, as you might expect, is more complex than those stories with headlines that border on clickbait. Virgin submitted an application for a launch license with FAA/AST in August, according to statements by both FAA and Virgin officials. Once an application is deemed sufficiently complete by the FAA, it starts a 180-day clock to review the application. That 180-day deadline for a decision by the FAA doesn’t come until some time in February, depending on when in August the FAA formally accepted the application. That 180 days likely doesn’t include the period of more than two weeks in October when FAA/AST was effectively closed during the government shutdown. Thus, it’s hardly surprising that Virgin Galactic doesn’t have a license yet.

Moreover, even if the award of the license is delayed, it alone doesn’t necessarily become an obstacle for Virgin. The company currently has an experimental permit from FAA/AST, allowing it to perform powered test flights but now allowing revenue-generating flights. That permit allows Virgin to continue flight tests up to and including full suborbital flights. Virgin will need a license once it starts commercial service (which won’t be until at least August, based on previous reports), but not before then.

At Parabolic Arc, Doug Messier argues that FAA “will need to see a number of successful flights before they agree to let Virgin Galactic fly paying passengers.” That’s possible, but it’s worth noting that a number of expendable launch vehicles (without people on board, of course) received launch licenses before their first flights, including SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Also, SpaceShipOne received its launch license from the FAA in early 2004 after just one 15-second powered test flight. That, though, was before FAA/AST had the authority to grant permits for suborbital test flights.

These suggestions that AST will delay the granting of a license are based on the argument that they’ll wait until there’s a series of suborbital test flights that demonstrate that the vehicle is safe for Virgin’s customers. However, that is not FAA’s mandate. The FAA’s primary focus in on protecting the safety of third parties: those people, and their property, not involved with the launch. Under current law (51 USC 509), flights of “spaceflight participants” are allowed under a launch license under the “informed consent” regime: the license holder has to inform the participant about the risks associated with the flight and that “the United States Government has not certified the launch vehicle as safe for carrying crew or space flight participants”. The participant must then provide “written informed consent” to fly.

Under the Commercial Space Flight Amendments Act (CSLAA) of 2004, the FAA is restricted from promulgating other safety regulations involving spaceflight participants except in the event of “a serious or fatal injury” during a flight, or “an unplanned event or series of events” during a flight that “posed a high risk” of causing such an injury. That restriction was to expire in December 2012, eight years after the CSLAA became law, but in early 2012 Congress amended the law to change the deadline to October 2015.

The CBC article treats that current regulatory restriction as something of a flaw. If Virgin does get its license, it reports, “the flights could take place without the kind of safety rules that go into more conventional forms of air travel.” That is, as one space law expert quoted in the article notes, a deliberate aspect of the law: that restriction was designed to allow the industry to build up flight experience upon which regulations could be based (and is why many in the industry refer to it as a “learning period” rather than a moratorium.) The lack of flights by Virgin and others, though, led Congress to extend the expiration of this learning period at least once, and some in the industry have pressed for another extension.

The emphasis on a lack of a commercial launch license, then, is something of a red herring. Virgin doesn’t need a launch license now to continue its testing regime, isn’t late now in receiving one, and given current law, there’s no reason to believe the Virgin won’t receive one before it plans to begin commercial flights, so long as as it can demonstrate the vehicle’s safety to the uninvolved public.

What should be a focus of concern, though, is what could delay SpaceShipTwo from beginning commercial flights this year: its hybrid rocket engine. While Virgin officials indicated last year that they would be gradually increasing the burn times of that engine on its powered flights, the third powered flight fired its engine only a few seconds longer than the first flight, more than eight months earlier. The long gaps between powered flights have also raised questions about the status of the engine, including speculation that the engine is somehow underpowered for its planned suborbital flights and that it is working on an alternative engine that uses a nylon-based fuel.

Last last month, perhaps to counter some of that speculation, Virgin released a video that showed, among other highlights, a full (approximately 55-second) burn of that hybrid engine in a ground test. Scaled Composites has also released logs of “RocketMotorTwo” test firings, but as Messier noted a few days ago, these logs contain so few details as to be of little use. The thing to watch, then, is not whether or when Virgin gets a launch license for SpaceShipTwo, but when and how SpaceShipTwo actually flies under its current—or alternative—engine design.

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