FAA Launch License Decision Pending for Virgin Galactic

SpaceShipTwo lights its engine as WhiteKnightTwo flies overhead. (Credit: Ken Brown)
SpaceShipTwo lights its engine as WhiteKnightTwo flies overhead. (Credit: Ken Brown)

CBC News has an interesting article about what lies ahead for Virgin Galactic later this year. Although the story is published under a somewhat sensational headline, “Virgin Galactic space tourists could be grounded by FAA,” it provides some interesting information about the FAA license required for SpaceShipTwo to begin flying paying passengers.

Virgin Galactic submitted the license application in late August, and the FAA has six months to review it. So, the decision would nominally be expected by the end of February. However, an approval by then appears to be highly improbable at this point.

SpaceShipTwo has not flown anywhere near space yet. Unless the one powered flight per quarter test schedule is rapidly accelerated and the ship flies a lot higher than 71,000 feet in the next six weeks, there will be no spaceflights for the FAA to base its decision on.

SpaceShipTwo is being tested under an experimental permit that allows for an unlimited number of launches and re-entries. The FAA will need to see a number of successful flights before they agree to let Virgin Galactic fly paying passengers.

My best guess is the FAA will deny the application or simply continue it until SpaceShipTwo can actually fly into space.  When that will occur is uncertain. Sir Richard Branson is aiming to fly into space in the Fall, a schedule that is feasible if they can put an engine into SpaceShipTwo that can be fired for more than 20 seconds. If not, it could take a while.