The Federal Aviation Administration has granted Virgin Galactic a commercial license to operate its SpaceShipTwo — the latest milestone in the aspiring spaceline’s quest to one day fly from New Mexico’s Spaceport America.
The new operator license reauthorizes Virgin Galactic to continue its commercialization process after its spaceship broke up during a rocket-powered test flight over California’s Mojave Desert in October 2014, killing one pilot and injuring another.
In a statement, Virgin Galactic Senior Vice President of Operations Mike Moses called the FAA license “an important milestone” but added that the company still has “much work ahead to fully test this spaceship in flight.”
The operator license will be modified over time, Virgin Galactic said, as the company achieves milestones in ground and eventually flight testing. The company will ultimately seek FAA approval under the license to fly passengers to the edge of space and back from the $218.5 million taxpayer-funded spaceport near Truth or Consequences in southern New Mexico.
The operator license “enables the thorough testing that is a prerequisite for commercial operations and moves the day of the first commercial flight at Spaceport America even closer,” outgoing Spaceport America Executive Director Christine Anderson said in a statement.
Spaceport America has scrambled to retool its business plan after Virgin Galactic’s last, tragic test flight made it clear that the company would not be flying paying passengers to space any time soon. A five-year plan released in 2015 said Spaceport would target new tenants in the emerging “new space” industry and market the facility as a location for commercials, tourism and special events.
The license authorizes Virgin Galactic to conduct launches of SpaceShipTwo from Mojave Air and Spaceport in California, where the company is conducting its test program.
According to the license, Virgin Galactic must “successfully verify” the performance of hardware and software in its spaceship and carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo “before allowing any space flight participant on board during a flight.”
“Verification must include flight testing, and the results must be provided to the FAA prior to conducting a mission,” according to the license. Virgin Galactic unveiled its new spaceship VSS Unity in February and began ground tests of cabin controls, electrical systems, landing gear, the “reaction control system” — which allows the vehicle to maneuver in space — and other key systems.
The new spaceship underwent its first tests outside the hangar on Monday — a “taxi test” in which the spaceship was pulled by a vehicle to calibrate its navigation and communications sytems, Virgin Galactic said in a statement.