Virgin Galactic gets green light for rocket-powered test flights

31 May 2012

Virgin Galactic test flight programme. Image by Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson’s space tourism plans have been given a boost, as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo has been cleared to carry out its first-ever rocket-powered suborbital test flights by the end of the year.

Virgin Galactic has announced that its vehicle developer Scaled Composites has been granted an experimental launch permit from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for SpaceShipTwo as well as the carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo.

Scaled, which is based in the Mojave Desert in California, apparently received the one-year experimental launch permit on 23 May to carry out test flights beyond the atmosphere.

“This important milestone enables our team to progress to the rocket-powered phase of test flight, bringing us a major step closer to bringing our customers to space,” said George Whitesides, president and CEO of Virgin Galactic in a company statement.

Founded by Burt Rutan, Scaled developed SpaceShipOne, which claimed the US$10m Ansari X Prize as the world’s first privately developed manned spacecraft in 2004.

SpaceShipTwo is based on SpaceShipOne and has been built to carry six customers and two pilots on sub-orbital space flights and give people an out-of-the-seat zero gravity experience.

SpaceShipTwo is the first rocket-powered vehicle that carries humans on board to receive such a permit, according to Virgin Galactic.

The company is planning to launch its commercial passenger service in 2013 or 2014, once its test flights are successful.

But what will it cost to experience a few minutes of weightlessness on the spacecraft?

Well, apparently people can expect to splash out US$200,000 for a seat on SpaceShipTwo down the line.

Back in March, Branson issued a blog post in which he said actor Aston Kutcher was the 500th customer to sign up to be a future space tourist on the spacecraft.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic