Nearly seven months after a fatal breakup destroyed Virgin Galactic's first SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, the second SpaceShipTwo reached a construction milestone on Thursday: "weight on wheels," the point at which the structure is able to stand on its own landing gear rather than resting on supports.
"Although there’s still much work to be done, this was a powerful and emotional moment for our team to reflect on how far we have come," the company wrote in a Facebook post.
Construction of SpaceShipTwo Tail No. 2 began even before last October's tragic test flight. The plane, known as VSS Enterprise, broke up just seconds after its test pilots fired up the hybrid rocket engine. The co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, died in the crash; pilot Pete Siebold was injured.
The National Transportation Safety Board has not yet released the findings of its accident investigation, but Virgin Galactic's executives have voiced confidence they'll be able to follow up on any recommendations by the time SpaceShipTwo 2.0 takes flight.
The plane is taking shape inside a giant hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, under the supervision of The Spaceship Company, Virgin Galactic's manufacturing wing.
“We’re very happy with our team and with the progress we have made so far in building our new spaceship," Doug Shane, president of The Spaceship Company, said in comments emailed to NBC News. "They've put an incredible amount of thought, care, and attention to detail into building this beautiful new vehicle. We know there is a lot of work still in front of us, but we feel a deep sense of pride about how far we've come."
Virgin Galactic CEO George T. Whitesides told NBC News last year that ground testing of SpaceShipTwo 2.0 could begin by midyear this year, but the company hasn't provided an updated development schedule.
After ground testing, the plane would have to go through a long series of captive-carry flights, glide flights and powered flights — eventually rising to outer-space heights. Only after all that would SpaceShipTwo enter commercial spaceflight service.
About 700 customers have paid as much as $250,000 each to take suborbital flights to the edge of space, where they'd experience a few minutes of weightlessness and get astronaut's-eye views of the curving Earth. Although the test flights would be flown out of Mojave, the commercial takeoffs and landings would occur at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
NBCUniversal has established a multi-platform partnership with Virgin Galactic to track the development of SpaceShipTwo.