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Virgin Galactic to test new rocket without longtime aerospace partner

After last year's crash, Virgin Galactic will now test its new SpaceShipTwo rocket without Scaled Composites

After last year's fatal crash, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic will now test its new SpaceShipTwo rocket without its longtime aerospace partner that designed and built the first plane.

Since 2005, Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, a firm famous in the industry for designing the aircraft that won the coveted X-Prize, had worked together to build and test SpaceShipTwo. Their goal: blasting wealthy tourists into space.

Scaled was conducting the rocket's test flight Oct. 31 when it broke apart over the Mojave Desert about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles, killing one of the two pilots aboard.

The tests of the new spaceship, which is under construction in a hangar in Mojave, will be conducted by Virgin's own team of pilots, George Whitesides, the company's chief executive, confirmed Friday. Those tests are expected to begin later this year.

Scaled will still be connected to the project in some way, Whitesides said. "My guess is that we stay involved with Scaled for years to come."

Virgin Galactic is working on an aggressive schedule of construction and testing even as federal investigators continue their probe into what caused the plane to tear apart at more than 10 miles high.

Whitesides said he was confident about proceeding with the new spacecraft — already 90% structurally complete — because Virgin Galactic is involved in the investigation and has access to information about what went wrong.

The spacecraft has been modified based on the investigation's not-yet-public findings, he said, adding that he couldn't be more specific because of the ongoing probe.

In preliminary findings, the National Transportation Safety Board said that a video taken inside the cockpit showed that co-pilot Michael Alsbury prematurely unlocked the spacecraft's movable tail, which may have started the sequence of events that caused it to break up seconds later.

Alsbury did not move a second lever designed to move the tail, but it deployed anyway.

Investigators said they are looking at whether aerodynamic forces, a malfunction or other factors caused the tail to move. They said their conclusions might not be released until fall.

Both Alsbury, 39, and pilot Peter Siebold, 43, worked for Scaled. Siebold was thrown from the plane, still harnessed in his seat, as it broke apart. He told investigators that he managed to unbuckle himself as he plunged toward Earth. His parachute then automatically deployed.

He told investigators that he wasn't aware that his copilot had unlocked the craft's movable tail, which Scaled calls its "feather."

Alsbury, a father of two, was found dead in the wreckage, still strapped in his seat.

Kevin Mickey, the president of Scaled Composites, confirmed this week that his company would no longer be involved in testing. He said Scaled would still work as a consultant to Virgin Galactic.

Both Mickey and Whitesides explained that the separation between Virgin Galactic and Scaled was in the works even before the fatal test flight.

"We will always consider these people our partner," Mickey said. Scaled is conducting its own investigation of the craft's destruction, he said.

"In any situation like that, emotions are high," Mickey said. "Everybody needs to take time out to have the facts settle out."

Whitesides had first explained how Virgin Galactic was taking over the flight tests in a speech at an aerospace science conference earlier this month, making it clear that Scaled, not Branson's company, was in charge of the failed flight.

He explained that the companies had originally planned for Scaled to transfer operation of SpaceShipTwo to Virgin when the test program was deemed a success.

"Our operations team was poised to take the baton from our partners, Scaled Composites, as they carried on the final flights of the test program — their test flight program," he told the crowd. "But it was not to be."

Scaled is known for its long success in designing and building innovative aircraft. It was founded by Burt Rutan, who designed SpaceShipOne, the world's first privately funded manned spaceship. A test pilot flew the craft into space and back three times in 2004, winning the $10-million X-Prize.

Branson formed a joint venture with Scaled in 2005 to create a bigger rocket ship that could carry not just a pilot but also passengers.

Scaled now has 600 employees at its headquarters at the Mojave Air and Space Port — up from 150 in 2004. The company is now owned by aerospace giant Northrop Grumman, which has given it freedom for creativity.

The firm designed and built the model for what became Northrop's X47B — the first drone able to take off and land on a Navy carrier.

Scaled is now building what would be the largest aircraft ever flown. With a wingspan longer than a football field, the plane is designed to carry a booster rocket that can carry satellites — and possibly humans — into orbit. The project is funded by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen's Stratolaunch Systems.

Virgin Galactic and its sister company, The Spaceship Company, are also growing fast. The two firms now have 430 employees, Whitesides said. They expect to hire an additional 40 or 50, including engineers and technicians, in Mojave and Los Angeles in the next few weeks, he said.

On Friday, Virgin Galactic announced that it had hired Scaled test pilot Mark Stucky. Stucky joins a flight team that also has a former NASA space shuttle commander and former military test pilots.


Twitter: @melodypeterson

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