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Virgin Galactic craft to start testing this year

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WhiteKnightTwo is shown here during a glide flight. (Courtesy Virgin Galactic)

LAS CRUCES — A Virgin Galactic executive says the company will begin “glide” flight testing SpaceShipTwo before year end, a milestone in its march toward one day flying tourists to the edge of space and back from New Mexico’s Spaceport America.

Virgin Galactic has been working to recover from an October 2014 accident that tore apart its spaceship and killed one pilot. The tragedy set back billionaire founder Richard Branson’s oft-delayed plans to become the first private company to transport space tourists, and it also forced Spaceport America — where Virgin Galactic is anchor tenant — to re-evaluate its business plans.

“We’re going through materials testing, assembly, ground testing all the integrated stuff you need to do to get the actual product to flight test,” said Virgin Galactic President Mike Moses, during an update of the company’s progress to about 250 people at 2016 International Symposium on Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces.

“The next phase of our testing is free flight,” he said. “We’re getting really close to that. In fact, we’re probably just a month or two away from being ready to start our glide flight program,” or a test of the spaceship’s flight capabilities without rocket power.

In that test phase, carried out at the company’s test facility in Mojave, Calif., the dual fuselage WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane will take SpaceShipTwo up to about 50,000 feet and release, allowing the vehicle to glide back to land without firing up its propulsion system, Moses said.

“As much as a SpaceShip is a space ship, it’s also an airplane and a glider,” he said. “A lot of the testing we need to do initially is subsonically in that glide envelope.”

One of Virgin Galactic’s top competitors in the budding commercial human spaceflight industry was also on hand at the spaceflight conference to update its progress.

Blue Origin tests its rockets and space vehicle in Van Horn, Texas, about 3½ hours southeast of Spaceport America. The company owned by Amazon founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos has notched several successes this past year, including returning a reususable rocket to the launch pad.

Virgin Galactic no longer says publicly when it expects to fly tourists to space from New Mexico. But Blue Origin, famously tight-lipped about its progress, now says it plans to test fly astronauts to space by the end of 2017 and begin sending tourist passengers in 2018, President Rob Meyerson said at the conference.

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