Virgin Galactic awarded operator license for spacecraft

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo during a taxi test.
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo during a taxi test.

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has awarded Virgin Galactic an operator license for SpaceShipTwo, paving the way for the spacecraft to eventually be used for commercial space flight.

According to Virgin Galactic, the license was granted after a thorough review of the vehicle’s design, flight trajectory and safety analysis.

The license comes nearly two years after a previous SpaceShipTwo spacecraft broke up during a test flight on Oct. 31, 2014, killing one of the two pilots and injuring the other. That spacecraft was operating under an experimental permit issued by the FAA.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) conducted an investigation of the incident and determined that “the probable cause of this accident was [Virgin Galactic contractor] Scaled Composites’ failure to consider and protect against the possibility that a single human error could result in a catastrophic hazard to the SpaceShipTwo vehicle.”

In this case, that error was the co-pilot’s premature unlocking of the aircraft’s feathering mechanism, “which led to uncommanded feather extension and the subsequent aerodynamic overload and in-flight breakup of the vehicle,” according to the NTSB.

Following the NTSB report, Virgin Galactic said, “We are determined to learn and to improve as a result of this tragic accident. Already, we have taken important steps to prevent any such future occurrence, with particular focus on pilot training, crew resource management in flight, and the already-completed addition of a mechanical inhibit system that would prevent premature unlocking in the future.”

On Aug. 1, the new SpaceShipTwo completed its first taxi test, in which the vehicle was successfully towed by a Range Rover Autobiography, a crucial step on its way to flight testing.


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