Virgin Galactic Launch License on Hold While Legislative Fix is Sought

SpaceShipTwo on final approach during a glide flight on Jan. 17, 2014. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
SpaceShipTwo on final approach during a glide flight on Jan. 17, 2014. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Galactic’s application for a launch license for SpaceShipTwo has been on hold since January while legislators in Washington attempt to fix a quirk in the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulations governing licenses and experimental permits, the company said.

The specific issue involves a provision in the law that makes an experimental permit invalid once a launch license is issued for a vehicle, according to Will Pomerantz, Virgin Galactic’s vice president for special projects. Flight testing of SpaceShipTwo and its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship is continuing at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

The FAA deemed Virgin Galactic’s application for a license as “complete enough” in late July 2013, giving the agency 180 days to make a decision. If the agency had issued the license in January, flight tests would have been stopped before they were completed.

“To prevent this from happening, Virgin Galactic voluntarily requested that the FAA ‘toll’ (more colloquially, pause) the 180-day response period shortly before it expired,” Pomerantz wrote.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), whose district includes the Mojave Air and Space Port where SpaceShipTwo is being tested, has introduced the Suborbital and Orbital Advancement and Regulatory Streamlining Act (SOARS) Act, which includes a provision that would allow experimental permits and launch licenses to be held simultaneously.

“Notably, with the regulations as currently written, this type of situation would also complicate the matter of conducting ongoing testing of a different tail number of a given vehicle design once the fleet leader is in commercial service, effectively eliminating the vehicle operator’s ability to conduct further flight tests under the rules and procedures for experimental operations,” Pomerantz added.

Virgin Galactic expects that powered flight tests will resume later this summer, with the hope of beginning commercial flights by the end of 2014.

“Our expectation is that our 180-day clock will be resumed and a License issued either shortly after Scaled completes its test flight program or shortly after FAA regulation/policy is changed to correct this quirk, whichever comes first,” Pomerantz wrote. “Virgin Galactic’s thanks go out to the leaders at both the FAA and Congress for their help in correcting this issue.”