In one small step for commercial space travel, Virgin Galactic has received a licence to fly its newest spacecraft by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). To get the license, Virgin Galactic had to work with the FAA for years to show their progress on vehicle system design, safety analysis, and flight trajectory analysis.
In essence, the license will officially allow Virgin Galactic to start preparing for test flights with their new model, which could someday take paying tourists on trips into space. The company has not yet announced when this will take place, though.
SpaceShipTwo is a reusable spacecraft capable of carrying eight passengers and two pilots. To get off the ground, it's first lifted to an altitude of 15,000 meters (50,000 feet) by a specially designed jet aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo. From here, it’s released and uses a hybrid rocket motor to reach beyond the official boundary of space – the Karman Line, 100 kilometers (62 miles) high. It then cruises for a few minutes, before re-entering Earth's atmosphere with its unique feathering system.
“The granting of our operator license is an important milestone for Virgin Galactic, as is our first taxi test for our new spaceship,” Virgin Galactic Senior Vice President of Operations Mike Moses said in a statement. “While we still have much work ahead to fully test this spaceship in flight, I am confident that our world-class team is up to the challenge.”
The FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation License, which you can view in full here, adds that Virgin will have to report on their current engine software, hardware, and performances during tests before they are allowed any people on board during a spaceflight.
This is not the first time Virgin Galactic has received FAA approval for a spaceflight test vehicle. One was granted for the original SpaceShipTwo, VSS Enterprise, before its tragic demise in a deadly accident on October 31, 2014. The crash killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury and severely injured pilot Peter Siebold.
Virgin founder Richard Branson said in a press conference at the time of the crash: "Space flight is hard – but worth it."