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Virgin Galactic tests leading to rocket-powered flights

Virgin Galactic’s passenger rocket ship is gearing up for powered flights that could eventually carry paying tourists into space from southern New Mexico.

It’s the next critical step for SpaceShipTwo, which is moving from a series of glider flights that started in December 2016 to rocket-powered ones this year at the Mojave Air and Space Port in Southern California, said Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides.

“We’re about done with the glide-flight phase,” Whitesides told the Journal last week. “The next step is powered flights through an incremental process to test performance. Powered flight will push the vehicle into supersonic flight, and eventually to multiple times the speed of sound.”

That puts the company nearly back to where it was in October 2014, when its first SpaceShipTwo broke apart in a powered flight over the Mojave Desert. That accident set back the launch of commercial flights from New Mexico’s Spaceport America by years. Human error caused that incident after the copilot prematurely engaged the rocket’s braking system, tearing the vehicle apart in midair in an accident that killed the copilot and injured the pilot.

The new SpaceShipTwo is equipped with an automated lock mechanism to prevent such things in the future. And since 2016, it has flown nearly a dozen times, about half of them “captive carry” flights where the vehicle remains attached to the mother ship, WhiteNightTwo. The other half were glider flights, where the rocket detaches from WhiteNightTwo while in the air to descend on its own to the ground.

The glider flights have allowed Virgin Galactic to fully assess vehicle performance as it returns to earth. That includes testing the rocket’s “feathered” braking system, through which the ship’s wing booms are turned into position for re-entry from suborbit to permit the vehicle to gently glide down to earth.

Virgin Galactic teams have also tested vehicle handling at slow speeds with more weight on board, including shifts in the ship’s center of gravity for landing.

At least one more glide flight is planned for the coming weeks before moving onto powered ones. Once that happens, it thrusts SpaceShipTwo into a final-frontier phase where the rocket will shoot incrementally higher in successive tests until eventually entering space.

Under Virgin Galactic’s system, the rocket is carried on the underbelly of WhiteNightTwo to 50,000 feet. It then detaches, and pilots ignite the rocket propulsion to push the ship into suborbit at 327,000 feet, or 62 miles up, which is considered the edge of space.

“We’ll test all parameters of the vehicle in powered flights,” Whitesides said. “We’ll compare all metrics and performance with our analytical models to make sure that what we see in the real test-flight data is what we predicted in our forecasts.”

It’s not clear how long powered-flight testing will take, much less how soon the company could actually move to commercial operations at Spaceport America. But Virgin Galactic is now actively preparing for operational activity. It will move many of its Mojave-based employees and their families to New Mexico in the next few months, growing its local workforce from about 30 now to more than 100 this year.

“We will start to post positions and work with contracted suppliers for jobs that support commercial operations such as hospitality, facilities management, and operations,” said Virgin Galactic spokeswoman Christine Choi in an email to the Journal.

Virgin Galactic is also building more models of SpaceShipTwo, with two more rockets now under construction. The company envisions a fleet of five rockets and two mother ships, although that depends on flight demand from paying passengers.

“We’re hard at work on the next two space ships,” Whitesides said. “There’s still a lot more work to do, but those vehicles are coming together, foreshadowing our vision of having a fleet of ships.”

All the progress is generating excitement among Spaceport America enthusiasts.

“A lot’s going on,” Richard Holcomb, spaceport ambassador, told the Albuquerque Economic Forum in December. “It’s coming, it’s very imminent, and it’s going to happen.”

Holcomb, along with Dale Dekker of the architecture firm Dekker/Perich Sabatini and other supporters, created the nonprofit Ambassadors for Spaceport America to promote New Mexico’s commercial space industry.

“It’s a booster club to step up and help make this happen,” Dekker told the Economic Forum. “We believe New Mexico will become a global center for space commercialization and innovation.”

Spaceport America is actively recruiting more companies. Apart from Virgin Galactic, it’s signed up four more permanent tenants, including SpaceX, UP Aerospace, Exos Aerospace, and Energetic Pipeline2Space.

“Some are getting ready to move dirt and build hangers,” said Spaceport America CEO Dan Hicks.

Others, such as The Boeing Co., are testing new technologies at the spaceport, and more suborbital providers are also considering operations there, Hicks said.