Virgin Galactic To Resume SpaceShipTwo Test Flights in 2015

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WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic is “turning the corner” from its October SpaceShipTwo accident and plans to complete and start testing a second vehicle this year, the company’s chief executive said Jan. 9.

Debris from Oct. 31 SpaceShipTwo accident. Credit: NTSB
Debris from Oct. 31 SpaceShipTwo accident. Credit: NTSB

In one of his first public speeches since the Oct. 31 crash that destroyed the company’s first SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle and killed one of two pilots onboard, George Whitesides told an audience at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ SciTech 2015 conference in Kissimmee, Florida, that the company was rebounding from the accident.

“Our test flight accident in October of last year was really the toughest thing that our business could undergo,” he said. “Today, nine weeks after this fairly traumatic event, our company is turning the corner and looking to the future.”

That focus, Whitesides said, includes working on the second SpaceShipTwo, which was already under construction prior to the accident. He said structural fabrication of the vehicle is more than 90 percent complete, and other systems are two-thirds complete.

“We have a lot of work to do over the coming months, but ‘weight on wheels’ is now in sight,” he said, referring to a development milestone where the vehicle is supported entirely by its own landing gear.

Whitesides said the company’s goal for 2015 is to complete development of the second SpaceShipTwo and begin flight tests “as soon as we can do so safely and responsibly.” He added that he expects those flight tests to start later in the year, with commercial flights beginning in 2016.

Whitesides said little in his speech about the accident itself, citing the ongoing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). At briefings in the days after the accident, investigators said that co-pilot Michael Alsbury unlocked the vehicle’s feathering system, designed to raise the vehicle’s tail for re-entry, several seconds earlier than planned. The vehicle broke apart seconds later.

“Our team has organized the final steps of the [second SpaceShipTwo] build schedule to accommodate any learnings from the NTSB investigation, and we’re committed to making any modifications or improvements that we feel are necessary to improve the safety of the vehicle,” he said.

Whitesides said the company had continued support from its backers, including founder Sir Richard Branson, despite the accident. “Our team and our investors remain committed to the goal of opening space for all,” he said. “Richard himself has redoubled his commitment.”

However, Branson acknowledged recently that he had doubts about the future of Virgin Galactic immediately after the SpaceShipTwo crash. “I found myself questioning seriously for the first time whether in fact it was right to be backing the development of something that could result in such tragic circumstances,” he wrote in a Jan. 2 blog post on the Virgin website.

Branson said that his doubts about the company’s future were erased after meeting with the company’s employees and hearing from its customers. “Virgin Galactic goes on, with an unwavering commitment to safety and a renewed sense of purpose,” he wrote.