Spaceflight Insider

Virgin Galactic receives SpaceShipTwo operator license, starts taxi tests

SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity Taxi Test

VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic’s second SpaceShipTwo vehicle, undergoes a taxi test at the Mohave Air and Space Port. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic has conducted its first taxi test with the SpaceShipTwo known as VSS Unity. Combined with the recently awarded operator license by the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA-AST), the space tourism company is gearing up for a series of ground and flight evaluations.

Today, August 1, the company announced that the FAA-AST permit was the culmination of several years of in-depth interaction with the FAA. The review process consisted of an evaluation of the vehicles system design, safety analysis, and flight trajectory analysis.

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Sir Richard Branson unveiling ceremony photo credit: Matthew Kuhns / SpaceFlight Insider

Virgin Galactic unveiled the new SpaceShipTwo – the VSS Unity – during a ceremony held at the Mojave Air & Spaceport on Feb. 19, 2016. Photo Credit: Matthew Kuhns / SpaceFlight Insider

“The granting of our operator license is an important milestone for Virgin Galactic, as is our first taxi test for our new spaceship,” said Mike Moses, Virgin Galactic senior vice president. “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.”

Earlier this morning Virgin Galactic took VSS Unity out for a taxi test. The vehicle was towed by a Range Rover.

These tests are the first steps in returning the SpaceShipTwo design to flight after the Oct. 31, 2014, in-flight breakup that destroyed the VSS Enterprise and killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injured Peter Siebold.

In an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), it was determined the cause of the breakup was due to a premature deployment of the vehicles feathering mechanism.

The feathering device involves rotating the vehicle’s twin tail booms upward to allow for a stable re-entry, much like a shuttlecock arcs in a game of badminton. This procedure was never intended to be activated in the thicker part of the atmosphere.

After the ignition of the vehicle’s engine and subsequent acceleration through the sound barrier, telemetry and in-cockpit video and audio showed Alsbury announced “unlocking” at Mach 0.92, instead of the required minimum of Mach 1.4. Within four seconds, the tail booms rotated upward and the vehicle broke apart.

New procedures and safeguards have since been implemented to prevent this single-point human error from occurring again.

Eventually, after testing VSS Unity, the company hopes to start sending paying customers into space on suborbital trajectories. Already more than 700 people have applied to pay between $200,000 and $250,000 to take 2.5-hour trip culminating in a few minutes of being in space.

Additionally, Virgin Galactic is working with NASA to develop a suborbital reusable launch vehicle, known as LauncherOne, that will be dropped from a 747-400 – similar to SpaceShipTwo being dropped from its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo. These flights are expected to provide about four minutes of microgravity for experiments to be conducted.


Derek Richardson is a student studying mass media with an emphasis in contemporary journalism at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. He is currently the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also writes a blog, called Orbital Velocity, about the space station. His passion for space ignited when he watched space shuttle Discovery leap to space on Oct. 29, 1998. He saw his first in-person launch on July 8, 2011 when the space shuttle launched for the final time. Today, this fervor has accelerated toward orbit and shows no signs of slowing down. After dabbling in math and engineering courses in college, he soon realized that his true calling was communicating to others about space exploration and spreading that passion.

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