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
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.