Whitesides Predicts Commercial Spaceflights in 2014

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RocketMotorTwo firing in Mojave. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

RocketMotorTwo firing in Mojave. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

At a luncheon with business leaders on Tuesday, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides urged state legislators to complete work on an informed consent law designed to protect the space company from lawsuits.

Whitesides also laid out a schedule for powered flights of SpaceShipTwo that has the vehicle flying into space by the end of the year. The appearance coincided with the release of a picture showing the latest test firing of the rocket’s hybrid motor in Mojave, Calif.

The legislative holdup appears to be a minor one. Identical measures providing greater liability protections for Virgin Galactic and its suppliers in the event that passengers are injured or killed passed both the House and the Senate unanimously. Each bill was then sent to the other chamber for approval, with a single one to be forwarded to the governor for her signature.

Whitesides told business leaders that Virgin Galactic hopes to fly into space by the end of the year, with commercial flights from New Mexico in 2014.

“We’ve been releasing it and letting it glide to Earth,” Whitesides said. “Now we’ll start to release it and fire the rocket motor. We’ll burn it for longer and longer on each test to go faster and higher until we do a space shot. We hope to get there before the end of the year, if not before.”

…Meanwhile, Whitesides said the company is working with the New Mexico Spaceport Authority to ready the facility for commercial operations, which are expected to begin early next year, shortly after rocket-powered test flights conclude in late 2013.

“At most, I think we’re talking a few months” after test flights conclude, Whitesides told the Journal.

Whitesides also said that Virgin Galactic and the New Mexico Spaceport Authority are working in good faith to resolve a “laundry list” of issues relating to Spaceport America.

Virgin Galactic began paying rent on the facility in February under protest, saying there were a number of unfinished items at the $209 million, taxpayer funded facility. The company gave New Mexico until the end of March to fix the problems or it would stop paying rent, pay a reduced rent, or pull out of the 20-year lease.

On Tuesday, Virgin Galactic released a photograph of the latest test firing of the SpaceShipTwo’s propulsion system. Officials have described the hot fire, which reportedly ran about 45 seconds, as the first in a series of qualification tests prior to the start of powered flights later this year.