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.