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.”

  • mattmcc80

    The SOARS act was introduced last August, and referred to the House Space Subcommittee in December. No action taken so far. What are the odds Chairman Palazzo is sitting on this bill just to stick it to commercial space companies that aren’t from Mississippi?

  • Douglas Messier

    I don’t know. When McCarthy testified in favor of it in front of the House space subcommittee in December, I had a distinct impression he had no idea what was in the measure. His testimony was very general. That’s not unusual. Some legislation is writtten by outside groups and handled by staffers.

    There is a stripped down measure in the Senate focused on the license and permit issue. I need to see where that is in the legislative process.

  • jamesmuncy

    The SOARS Act provides multiple elements of regulatory relief to the U.S. commercial spaceflight industry. The specific issue of license-permit flexibility is not only covered in the SOARS Act, but also in Senator Heinrich’s bill S2140 in the Senate, which was marked up in April of this year to respond to the urgent situation described in this article, but has not yet been passed by the full Senate. The House Science Committee has been focused on moving NASA authorization legislation, which they got thru the full House last month.

    Your speculation about Chairman Palazzo “sitting on this bill”, let alone alleged motives, is incorrect. You need to talk to leaders in the Senate and the House — of both parties — to find out why license permit legislation isn’t moving faster.

  • Scott

    It does not matter.
    Sir Richard can’t get it up.

  • Chris Courtois

    “Flight testing of SpaceShipTwo and its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship is continuing at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.”… huh, testing… continuing? where? I must have missed it!

    7 months of clear aircraft-less sky and coutning. A+, VG… A freakin’ plus. So… space in September, richie? 😀