Virgin Galactic resumes SpaceShipTwo testing

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WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic resumed flight tests of its second SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane Feb. 24 after a two-month hiatus.

The vehicle, attached to its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California at approximately 12:15 p.m. Eastern. SpaceShipTwo separated from the aircraft about an hour later, gliding to a runway landing back in Mojave.

The company didn’t immediately disclose details about the test, the third glide flight for the vehicle known as VSS Unity, but the first since a Dec. 22 flight. Piloting the vehicle on this test flight were chief test pilot Dave Mackay and CJ Sturckow, a former NASA astronaut who flew on four shuttle missions, two of them as commander.

The company started a series of glide flights of SpaceShipTwo in early December to test its handling and performance before beginning powered test flights using its hybrid rocket motor. Company officials said last fall that they did not have a set number of glide flights planned, but thought it would take about ten flights to achieve all their objectives for this phase of the test program.

Speaking at the 20th Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference here Feb. 7, Virgin Galactic Chief Executive George Whitesides said the company would spend “the bulk of this year” doing test flights of VSS Unity, first with glide flights and later with powered flights.

“We have started the glide flight program, and we will continue that for the next few months, and then we’ll get into powered flight over the course of the year,” he said. “We aspire to push far into the test flight program during the course of 2017.”

Virgin Galactic has signed up about 700 people to fly as space tourists on SpaceShipTwo, and also has a contract to perform suborbital research flights through NASA’s Flight Opportunities program. The company has not disclosed when it expects commercial flights, either of tourists or research payloads, to begin.