WASHINGTON — As space tourism startup Virgin Galactic prepares to begin rocket-powered test flights of its suborbital craft this year, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) continues to debate a regulatory regime that could see the company beholden to two separate offices within the agency.

“The FAA guys on the aviation side look at it and see an airplane, and on the space side, they see a spacecraft,” Steve Isakowitz, executive vice president and chief technical officer of Virgin Galactic, said at Free Enterprise and the Final Frontier, an event in Washington sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Virgin Galactic of Las Cruces, N.M., has developed a two-vehicle system to carry paying passengers to the edge of space, where they will be able to see the curvature of the Earth and experience several minutes of microgravity. The WhiteKnightTwo aircraft will take off from New Mexico’s Spaceport America and climb to an altitude of about 15,240 meters before releasing the rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo, which will take the passengers to an altitude of about 110 kilometers.

Isakowitz told SpaceNews that Virgin Galactic views WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo as a single space-launch system for regulatory purposes. The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has jurisdiction over the launch and atmospheric re-entry of commercial craft fitting that description.

But the FAA is still debating whether, in a regulatory sense, there is an aviation component to Virgin Galactic’s space operations. As the company continues its test program with an eye toward starting revenue-generating flights sometime in 2014, the FAA is debating the regulatory regime internally.

“Our Aviation Safety and Commercial Space offices are currently discussing respective roles and responsibilities for the operational flights,” FAA spokesman Les Dorr wrote in a Feb. 11 email. “Nothing is yet final.”

Currently, Dorr said, “WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo are conducting atmospheric test flights under the provisions of the experimental airworthiness certificates they both have.”

Virgin Galactic has conducted multiple tests of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo, including dropping the latter from the mothership and bringing it in for a runway landing. SpaceShipTwo’s first powered flight is scheduled for this year, Isakowitz said, declining to be more specific.

Virgin Galactic is bankrolled by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and a sovereign investment fund in the United Arab Emirates. The company’s flight hardware is built by the Spaceship Co. of Mojave, Calif., a supplier Virgin Galactic bought out in October.

Virgin Galactic has now booked more than 560 reservations, Isakowitz said. Tickets to space cost $200,000, and the minimum deposit to reserve a seat is $20,000.



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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...