Cape Canaveral, Florida: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, a commercial six-passenger spacecraft is set to make its first rocket-powered suborbital test flight after being cleared by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
FAA spokesman Hank Price said that SpaceShipTwo manufacturer Scaled Composites of Mojave, California, received a one-year experimental launch permit on May 23 for test flights beyond the atmosphere.
The six-passenger, two-pilot spacecraft built by Scaled, which sealed the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 for the first privately funded human spaceflights, is based on the prototype SpaceShipOne.
SpaceShipOne, which is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution`s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, had made three suborbital journeys beyond the atmosphere, each with a solo pilot aboard, ultimately reaching an altitude of nearly 70 miles above Earth.
British billionaire Richard Branson`s company Virgin Group jointly owns Virgin Galactic with Aabar Investments PJS. SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan, who has since retired from Scaled, was hired by Branson to create a fleet of spaceships for commercial use. Virgin Galactic has taken deposits from more than 500 people for rides, which cost $200,000.
Participants will experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the curve of Earth set against the black sky of space.
Virgin Galactic`s SpaceShipTwo, which had completed 16 free flight tests, will be flown into the air beneath a carrier jet and released. The spaceship’s rocket engine will fire to blast it into the sky once separated.
The FAA permit will enable Scaled, now wholly owned by Northrop Grumman, to move on to rocket-powered flights, the first of which is expected toward the end of the year, Virgin Galactic said in a statement.
Company President George Whitesides described the permit an “important milestone” that positions the company “a major step closer to bringing our customers to space."
The experimental permit allows Scaled to fly only its own test pilots, not passengers, Price said.
However, a date is yet to be set for the start of Virgin Galactic`s commercial spaceflights.
With Agency inputs