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Virgin Galactic restarts its flight test program for space tourism

Virgin Galactic
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo at a taxi test Aug. 1 in Mojave.
(Virgin Galactic via Asociated Press)

Virgin Galactic’s new spaceship had its first flight test Thursday afternoon in Mojave, the first since an October 2014 crash that killed one of two test pilots.

The test for the new SpaceShipTwo, dubbed VSS Unity at its unveiling in February, was what the Long Beach aerospace startup calls a “captive carry,” in which the spaceship stays attached to its carrier WhiteKnightTwo aircraft for the entire flight.

The test flight was led by four test pilots — two in SpaceShipTwo and two on the carrier aircraft.

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The intention is to gather aerodynamic performance data on the vehicle and to test one of the “abort modes” — when SpaceShipTwo stays “mated” to the carrier aircraft in case of a problem and returns to the airport.

Later, Virgin Galactic will progress to glide tests in which SpaceShipTwo will be released from its carrier aircraft and fly on its own.

SpaceShipTwo eventually will be in the business of carrying tourists who have paid up to $250,000 into space. The sleek spaceship will be released at about 50,000 feet by its carrier aircraft, then propelled by rocket to more than 50 miles above the Earth — past the point where NASA and the U.S. Air Force consider a passenger to be an astronaut. 

Last summer, the National Transportation Safety Board said the first SpaceShipTwo broke apart because the copilot had opened the aircraft’s movable tail, or “feather system,” too early. The system is intended to help the craft slow down after its descent from the Earth’s atmosphere.

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The NTSB placed most of the blame on the plane’s builder, Mojave-based Scaled Composites, which is owned by Northrop Grumman Corp. The agency said the plane’s design should have protected against the possibility of this human error.

The NTSB also faulted the Federal Aviation Administration for not realizing the gap in Scaled’s hazard analysis.

The new SpaceShipTwo is built by the Spaceship Co., Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing arm.

In a statement released Wednesday, Virgin Galactic said the first SpaceShipTwo flew 54 times before the accident, which provided an “enormous volume” of data to incorporate safety improvements into the new craft.

As all flight tests are crewed by at least two pilots, the company said that “even for relatively more simple and brief flights, we need to be prepared to run a full abort scenario to bring our pilots home safely.” 

samantha.masunaga@latimes.com

For more business news, follow me @smasunaga


UPDATES:

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12:57 p.m.: This story was updated with details of the test flight Thursday.

This article was originally published on September 7 at 5:55 p.m.


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