SpaceShipTwo to Begin Powered Flights with “Starter” Motor, Not Full Engine

Jeff Foust has gotten Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides to clarify remarks he made last week in Qatar about the status of SpaceShipTwo’s engine status. Things aren’t nearly far along as it appeared:

Last Thursday the Wall Street Journal (via Zawya Dow Jones) reported from Doha, Qatar, that SpaceShipTwo engine development was nearly complete. “Within a month or two, we expect we’ll have an engine we can put in the [spacecraft] vehicle,” Virgin Galactic president and CEO George Whitesides said. That would put them on a path towards beginning powered flight tests by late this year and beginning commercial service by the end of this year. (In a brief conversation Saturday in Washington, where he was on a panel at the USA Science and Engineering Festival, Whitesides told me that the motor that will be ready for SpaceShipTwo soon will be a “starter” motor for short-duration powered tests, not the full motor.) [My emphasis]

Really? Seven and a half years after launching the program, they only have a “starter” motor for short duration test flights that will begin at the end of the year. On what basis does that give Virgin confidence that they can start commercial service by the end of 2013? I don’t get it.

In fairness, Whitesides did qualify his remarks. He told The Wall Street Journal said they nearly finished developing “an engine,” not “the engine”. And he said they “hope” Virgin Galactic can fly commercially by the end of 2013.

“I think we’re nearly there,” said Whitesides, a former NASA chief of staff. “Within a month or two, we expect we’ll have an engine we can put in the [spacecraft] vehicle.

“We would carry on that powered flight testing into 2013 for several months leading, eventually we hope, to the start of commercial operations towards the end of 2013,” he added. [My emphasis]

We’ll see what happens.