SpaceShipTwo Test Flights in Late 2016?

The second SpaceShipTwo under construction. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
The second SpaceShipTwo under construction. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Immediately after the fatal crash of SpaceShipTwo last October, Virgin Galactic vowed to have a second spacecraft ready for testing within about six months.  As the six month anniversary of Mike Alsbury’s was marked last week, it is clear it will take a while before flights resume. In fact, one Virgin Galactic official indicated flight tests might not occur until late 2016.

The company marked the anniversary of the fatal flight with an update on its website.

While our satellite launch team has been hard at work at our new facility in Long Beach, our human spaceflight program in Mojave has been making progress on building the second SpaceShipTwo. That new vehicle—which has not yet been formally named, though it’s had various internal nicknames over the years—is coming along at a steady pace, thanks to the efforts of the women and men in our manufacturing organization, The Spaceship Company. Our growing team is large enough to allow us to press forward both quickly and safely, and starting several months ago now have been working on the second SpaceShipTwo in three shifts, spanning days, nights, and weekends. In recent weeks, we’ve finished the final cure cycle of the main cabin (pictured above), closed out the main portions of the wings, and completed other important steps in the build plan.

Soon, we hope to take our new spaceship off of the construction fixtures and place her onto her own landing gear for the first time—a big milestone for the team. Of course, that moment marks not an end but rather another beginning. The spaceship will remain in our hangar for some time after that, occasionally moving back onto and back off the fixture as our crews continue installing new items and testing and verifying every piece of the craft. Only when our engineers, technicians, and safety officers are satisfied will the vehicle begin testing. Our hope is that the second SpaceShipTwo will enter into testing later this year, beginning with ground testing, then progressing through captive carry flights, glide flights, and eventually powered flights to progressively higher speeds and altitudes.

Like everyone else in the industry, Virgin Galactic has been consistently over optimistic about its schedule estimates. Given the way this is worded (“hope”), I would be surprised to see any actual flight tests this year. Ground tests are certainly possible.

Virgin Galactic Senior Program Manager Mark Butler told the Las Cruces Sun-News that flight tests on the second SpaceShipTwo could take quite a long time.

Butler said crews in California were taking lessons learned from the accident and applying those to construction of the new rocket. In the meantime, Virgin Galactic continues work on support operations at the spaceport in anticipation of the test flights resuming in late 2016.

The accident led to a “slowdown” of work at the spaceport, but Butler said the company was now “back on track” with the project. Just two weeks ago Virgin Galactic received a certificate of occupancy for its support operations areas at the spaceport.

“The program is not ending,” Butler said. “We are moving forward with this.”

After raising expectations for a decade, it’s possible Virgin Galactic is attempting to lower them. Vice President of Special Projects Will Pomerantz recently said company officials are trying to avoid setting any firm schedules.