Virgin Galactic preparing for next phase of SpaceShipTwo test flight program

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LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Virgin Galactic’s chief executive says the company is approaching the “next phase” of the flight test program for the company’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle as the company’s founder predicts the company reaching space in “weeks.”

Speaking at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight here Oct. 10, George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said he expected at least one more powered flight test of the vehicle before the end of this year.

“We’re entering into the next phase of our test flight program,” he said. “The next phase of flight will entail longer burns and higher duration, and that’s exciting for the team.”

Not all of those flights, though, will involve flights that go higher and faster. “We’ll do a variety of different things as we expand the envelope and try to understand abort scenarios and other things,” he said. “We have a lot of work still to go, but we’re making good progress.”

Whiteside’s comments came after the company’s founder, Richard Branson, said that Virgin Galactic would reach space in the near future. “We are more than tantalizingly close now,” he said in an interview with CNBC in Singapore Oct. 9. “We should be in space within weeks, not months.”

Branson, who long said he would be on the first commercial SpaceShipTwo flight, suggested that trip will be not too long after the first SpaceShipTwo spaceflight. “We’ll be in space with myself in months, not years, and then we’ll be in space with people not too long after that,” he said. “So, we’ve got a very, very exciting couple of months ahead.”

Whitesides declined to confirm the schedule Branson provided. “I don’t comment on specific schedules,” he said. “I let Richard be the public spokesman for the company on that.”

Whitesides did indicate that SpaceShipTwo, which made its last powered test flight July 26, would be flying again this year. “You’ll see at least one more flight before the end of the year,” he said.

Besides testing the current SpaceShipTwo vehicle, named VSS Unity, the company has two more vehicles under construction. “We have a vision of building out a fleet of spaceships over time,” he said. “That will take some time to do, but we’re really looking forward to getting the next vehicle into service when it’s ready to start test flights.” The size of the fleet, he said, will depend on market demand.

Whitesides said the company was also doing “preparatory engineering work” for a second WhiteKnightTwo airplane, which serves as the carrier aircraft for SpaceShipTwo. “We’re going to tweak it and improve it in a few ways,” he said.

The company’s future plans increasingly appear not to include a $1 billion investment from the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia. Virgin Group announced a non-binding memorandum of understanding with the fund nearly a year ago for the investment, which would go into Virgin Galactic as well as vehicle manufacturer The Spaceship Company and small launch vehicle company Virgin Orbit. However, Virgin had provided no updates on the status of that investment, including turning the non-binding memo into a binding agreement, since.

“We were excited about that announcement,” Whitesides said when asked about the deal’s status. “We’ll have more to say on that when we’re ready to do so.”

A day later, Branson released a statement announcing that his companies were suspending ties with Saudi Arabia amid concerns about the fate of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who disappeared after entering the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul Oct. 2 and is feared by some to have been killed.

“What has reportedly happened in Turkey around the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi Government,” Branson said in the statement, adding that he had requested more information from the Saudi government about the status of Khashoggi.

Until then, Branson said he was suspending ties with Saudi projects, such as being a director on two tourism projects. “Virgin will also suspend its discussions with the Public Investment Fund over the proposed investment in our space companies Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit,” he wrote.