Virgin, Scaled Look to Resume Powered SpaceShipTwo Flights

Takeoff! (Credit: Douglas Messier)
WhiteKnightTwo takes off with SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Guy Norris at Aviation Week reports on Virgin Galactic’s progress toward resuming flight tests of SpaceShipTwo and moving on to commercial operations next year.

That process involves three steps: Scaled Composites completing a series of flight tests to meet contractual milestones; Virgin Galactic completing several flight tests of its own once it takes possession of SpaceShipTwo; and the FAA granting Virgin Galactic a launch license.

The official transfer of the SS2 from Scaled to Virgin will take place upon completion of key contractual milestones, Whitesides says. Although the main intention remains to demonstrate a fully powered suborbital flight with an apogee beyond the 100-km (62-mi.) “Von Karman” altitude limit that defines the boundary between the atmosphere and space, Virgin will be satisfied with two main criteria: “We’d like at a minimum for [Sealed] to demonstrate supersonic reentry and peak heating, if we can,” Whitesides says.

“What we are trying to do is balance two things,” he adds. “Scaled Composites’ contractual responsibility is to demonstrate the spaceship can achieve the requirements we set out at the beginning of the program. At the same time, we want to get into commercial service as quickly as we can, and the best way to do that is to basically do as much of it as we can as quickly as we can.” The company therefore plans over the next few test flights to “evaluate a few things,” Whitesides says.

These will include the readiness of Virgin Galactic’s operator’s license from the FAA, the technical progress of the actual test flights and the readiness of the spaceline’s own crews. “We think we’re in really good shape in that area now. We did a 4.5-hr. flight of the carrier aircraft this week and had no squawks at all,” he adds, referring to the high standard to which the Virgin Galactic team now operates the formerly Scaled-flown WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft. “We are less tied up in the number of flights and more [involved] in Scaled demonstrating those technical milestones. Then we will be at a point where [Scaled President] Kevin Mickey and I will discuss when to make that switchover,” Whitesides notes.

Gaining the operator’s license is largely a question of timing, according to Whitesides. “We made our original application in the summer of 2013 and the clock started once we hit the ‘sufficiently complete’ milestone in August 2013,” he says. “That’s the point at which the FAA’s 180-day [review period] started.” As it became clear that more test and development work was required, Virgin requested a voluntary toll “a short number of days before the 180 days expired,” he adds….

Following the latest glide flights, SS2 is expected to be fitted with the modified rocket motor and flown for a series of final test flights to complete the development effort. “We are close to taking the spaceship from Scaled, which will mark the close of the development program. Then we will be off to the races,” Whitesides says. Virgin Galactic may conduct “one or two more test flights here [at Mojave] and then one or two in New Mexico [at Spaceport America, near Las Cruces], or maybe more,” he adds. “We will see what is required and then go into commercial service.” While the company declines to forecast when this may be, Virgin founder Richard Branson said in a recent televised interview that commercial flights could start next February or March.

It’s an interesting situation. They are in the midst of a complex flight test program. SpaceShipTwo has only flown three times under power and reached only 71,000 feet. And they are about to start flight tests with a brand new engine that has never been used in flight, and whose installation required changes to SpaceShipTwo’s wings due to the addition of fuel tanks.

SpaceShipTwo has been in development for 10 years. But now, Virgin Galactic wants to begin commercial service as fast as possible. And it’s trying to balance that desire — which will not accommodate a large number of flights — and the need to fully test out the spacecraft and ensure a safe ride for Branson, his son Sam, and all the commercial passengers who will follow.

Those goals seem contradictory. Does not Virgin Galactic have safety as its North Star? Hasn’t Branson said he wants to make sure SpaceShipTwo is perfectly safe before exposing his son to the risk of spaceflight? How exactly does the remaining flight test program accomplish that?

I’m reminded of what legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager wrote in his self-titled autobiography:

“By definition, a prototype was an unproven, imperfect machine….Some defects were obvious….But other problems…might be discovered late in a program, only after hundreds of hours of flying time. The test pilot’s job was to discover all the flaws, all the potential killers…Testing was lengthy and complicated, resulting in hundreds of major and minor changes before an aircraft was accepted in the Air Force’s inventory.”

Even counting what has been learned through SpaceShipTwo’s previous three powered flights and 31 glide flights, will the remaining test program find all the potential flaw in the spacecraft? Will SpaceShipTwo be sufficiently safe to start loading billionaires aboard for commercial flights?

I guess time will tell. What I do know is that the flight test program is making a lot of people in Mojave very nervous. I pray their fears are unfounded.