After the The Sunday Times of London reported issues with the wings of the company’s WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft, and the possibility that SpaceShipTwo (SS2) may fall short of the 100-kilometer “Kármán line,” the company has responded in a couple of ways. On the WK2 issue, the company tweeted a photo of WK2 on the runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, undergoing taxi tests of its new landing gear:
Great day to be back on the runway with WhiteKnightTwo! Taxi testing new landing gear, rated for commercial service. pic.twitter.com/bteCm6YLGC
— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) May 13, 2014
The company makes no mention of the reported defects (be they “imperfections,” as the company called them, or “cracks,” as others cited in the Times report did) but there’s the subtle message that WK2 will—presumably—be back in the skies soon, with SS2 test flights to follow.
Another aspect of the Times report was that Virgin was only guaranteeing in its contracts that it would take people to altitudes of 50 miles (80 kilometers): an altitude that NASA and the US Air Force have used for granting astronaut wings but below the 100-kilometer mark the company had previously said SS2 flights would achieve. Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides responded to an inquiry from Gizmodo about the report by saying 100 kilometers was still the company’s goal. “As we have always noted, we will have to prove our numerical predictions via test flights as we continue through the latter phase of the test program. Like cars, planes, and every other type of vehicle designed by humans, we expect our vehicle design and performance to evolve and improve over time.”
The company also alerted its customers to the Times report before it was even published, Parabolic Arc reported, posting an email that Virgin Galactic’s Stephen Attenborough sent the day before the newspaper published the article. “We don’t know all the angles but from what we can tell, the story appears to be predicated on false or deliberately misleading and exaggerated rumours from ‘off the record’, nameless contributors,” he wrote. “Although that means we cannot be sure of the sources of the mischief, we suspect they are linked in some way to the author Tom Bower, who has made a living by trying to discredit famous personalities, including Richard.” (Bower, who wrote a critical book about Branson published earlier this year, was quoted in the article, but Parabolic Arc’s Doug Messier, a co-author of the Times article, said he did no reporting on it.)
Both Whitesides’s and Attenborough’s comments, though, offer some glimpses of what the company has planned. In his email to customers, Attenborough said that since the company had sent out a newsletter the previous week “we have successfully undertaken the first of the qualifying firings of the rocket motor in preparation for the rapid series of powered test flights,” which may be a reference to an engine test last Thursday. Whitesides told Gizmodo that that the first SS2 flight into space “will happen just a few short months from now” and that “our current timetable has Richard [Branson’s] flight taking place around the end of the year.”
Branson, in a recent interview with Bloomberg, also addressed the company’ delays. “We are really hopeful that we’re almost there, but we’ve got to put all of the pieces together and we’re not going to go until we’re 100 percent sure it’s safe,” he said. “I’ll be very, very disappointed if it doesn’t happen this year.”