A Closer Look at Virgin Galactic’s Operator License

SpaceShipTwo ignites its engines on the third powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo ignites its engines on the third powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

The two-year license for SpaceShipTwo that the FAA AST issued on July 29 to Virgin Galactic covers flights from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California only.

The license limits the spacecraft to carrying “non-deployed scientific, experimental or inert payloads.” Paying commercial passengers (aka, space flight participants) are not allowed at this time.

“VG must successfully verify the integrated performance of the SS2/WK2 vehicle hardware and any software in an operational flight environment before allowing any space flight participant on board during a flight,” the document states. “Verification must include flight testing, and the results must be provided to the FAA prior to conducting a mission with a space flight participant on board.”

The document does not spell out in any detail what would qualify as verification.

Virgin Galactic will be required to provide the FAA with data prior to expanding SpaceShipTwo’s flight envelope.

‘No less than one week from an envelop expansion flight, VG must provide the FAA verification evidence of ground propulsion system envelope expansion test results and any newly derived Pass/Fail criteria with updated hazard reports,” the document states.

The pilot in command of SpaceShipTwo is authorized to deviate from the flight plan in an emergency. He will also be required to submit a report to the FAA detailing the deviation  if the agency requests one.

Here is how the FAA AST defines an operator license.

Operator License

A launch or reentry operator license authorizes you to conduct launches or reentries from one launch or reentry site within a range of operational parameters of launch or reentry vehicles from the same family of vehicles transporting specified classes of payloads or performing specified activities. An operator license remains in effect for two to five years from the date it’s issued.

To receive a launch or reentry operator license, you should follow the steps provided for the “Launch – or Reentry-Specific License.” The key difference between an operator license and a launch- or reentry-specific license is that a launch- or reentry-specific license licenses only a specific launch or reentry activity. A launch or reentry operator license will allow an operator to perform multiple launches or reentries of the same or similar type.