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Virgin Galactic expects to get FAA license to fly soon

LAS CRUCES – Virgin Galactic still has obstacles to surmount before rocketing amateur astronauts to space from Spaceport America, not the least of which includes completing its test flight program and obtaining a spaceflight license from the U.S. government.

The Federal Aviation Administration is soon due to respond to Virgin Galactic’s application for the operator license it needs before it can fly tourists on suborbital trips to space – scheduled to begin later this year, according to the company’s latest projection.

The company run by billionaire Sir Richard Branson says it is confident it will earn the license in time. While the FAA does not comment on pending applications, a spokesman said that the government shutdown and requests for information from the company could extend the mandated 180-day review period. Based on Virgin Galactic’s August application, a response would be due in February, without accounting for delays.

“The application process is well underway and Virgin Galactic is confident that the FAA award will be made in good time for it to begin commercial service later this year,” the company said in a statement.

Yet that confidence has overshot the mark in the past, especially with regard to the start date of commercial flights – which has been pushed back repeatedly for more than five years.

Some in the industry are more optimistic.

“I do expect the FAA to issue the license,” said Alexander Saltman, executive director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group. “I know that Virgin has been working with them closely throughout the development of their vehicle.”

The FAA is reviewing Virgin Galactic’s application under rules established by Congress in the 2004 Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act. Under the act, the FAA’s primary job is to ensure not the safety of the passengers who have paid upward of $200,000 per ticket to fly, but the safety of everyone on the ground – in other words, that the spacecraft will not go off course or otherwise harm the public. Passengers, meanwhile, are required to sign an “informed consent” document affirming they understand the risks of space flight.

Saltman says Congress chose the informed consent regime to keep the path clear for companies to experiment. Unlike the airline industry, which submits to requirements over how an aircraft should be built and perform, emerging spacelines are charting new ground with unique vehicles.

“The goal here is that when this industry is developed and lots of people are flying, we want it to be as safe as possible,” he said. “The best way to do that is to let the industry experiment now so the best solution will be found.”

New Mexico taxpayers agreed to chip in $225 million to build the spaceport where Virgin Galactic serves as the anchor tenant. The spaceport’s fiscal 2015 budget of $7.5 million is predicated in part on Virgin Galactic launching operations there.

“I don’t anticipate any problems” with the FAA licensing, said Spaceport America executive director Christine Anderson. “They had to have enough information about how (their spacecraft) is going to operate before they sent the application to the FAA. They determined in the course of their schedule that they had enough data last August to submit the application.”

The FAA has the ability to greenlight commercial space flight but it’s up to the companies to ensure safety as the industry strains to get on its feet. Safety is the top concern, said Saltman; still, for now, it’s buyer beware.

“Space flight is inherently dangerous,” he said. “I hope that one day that will no longer be true. But for now no one should get on board thinking it’s anywhere near as safe as an airline.”