Virgin Galactic’s SpaceshipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo get FAA approval

Image1By Mark Brown |

America’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has granted a launch permit to Virgin Galactic‘s suborbital spacecraft SpaceshipTwo and its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo.

“This important milestone enables our team to progress to the rocket-powered phase of test flight, bringing us a major step closer to bringing our customers to space,” said George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic.

Those rocket powered, supersonic tests flights will occur towards the end of 2012.

Both ships have been through lengthy testing regimes already. WhiteKnightTwo has made 80 test flights, and SpaceShipTwo has completed 16 free flights — three of which tested the vehicle’s ” feathering” re-entry system.

To prepare for the upcoming FAA-approved powered flights, Virgin and craft developer Scaled Composites will test SpaceShipTwo‘s aerodynamic performance with the full weight of the rocket motor system on board.

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation issues these experimental launch permits after it has determined that the vehicle operator has taken the appropriate steps to protect the public during testing. They’ve been granted to a number of other unmanned spaceships, but SpaceShipTwo is the first rocket-powered vehicle with humans to get the green light.

When Galactic finally takes its first astro-tourists into the stratosphere,WhiteKnightTwo will carry the SpaceshipTwo passenger craft up to altitudes of around 15km, before detaching. The small, six-person tourist vessel will boost up with its own engines, poking into space, before heading back down. Passengers will get about five minutes of weightlessness, and then glide back down to landing.

More than 500 people, including Stephen Hawking and Ashton Kutcher, haveput down a $20,000 (£13k) deposit to book a seat aboard SpaceshipTwo.