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By Alan Boyle

Six months after the fatal breakup of the first SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, Virgin Galactic is providing a progress report on the construction of SpaceShipTwo Tail No. 2. The company said engineers are working three shifts, spanning days, nights and weekends, to put the structure together.

"Soon, we hope to take our new spaceship off of the construction fixtures and place her onto her own landing gear for the first time — a big milestone for the team," Virgin Galactic said in Monday's update. "Of course, that moment marks not an end but rather another beginning."

At one time, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson had hoped to take a suborbital flight to outer space by this time — but that was before the Oct. 31 accident that killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury and injured pilot Pete Siebold as they were testing the plane.

The National Transportation Safety Board has not yet released the findings from its investigation, and Virgin Galactic said the second SpaceShipTwo will go into testing "only when our engineers, technicians and safety officers are satisfied."

"Our hope is that the second SpaceShipTwo will enter into testing later this year, beginning with ground testing, then progressing through captive carry flights, glide flights, and eventually powered flights to progressively higher speeds and altitudes," the company said.

About 700 customers have paid as much as $250,000 each to reserve a seat on SpaceShipTwo once it enters service. Although Virgin Galactic's executives have been circumspect about the schedule ahead, Will Pomerantz, the company's vice president for special projects, sketched out an ambitious vision for future flight during a Google Science Fair Hangout last week.

""I think that we’re not that many years away from the next time you go to an airport looking out the window and seeing a vehicle that looks very different and having an experience of getting from A to B that looks almost nothing like what your parents could have ever even imagined," Pomerantz told teenage Hangout host Elif Bilgin.

In other developments:

  • Space News quoted Pomerantz as saying that Virgin Galactic has not yet decided whether the second SpaceShipTwo's hybrid rocket motor would use a rubber-based or nylon-based fuel, but said his "personal guess" was that the rubber-based HTPB fuel would be selected. A year ago, Virgin Galactic signaled that it was shifting to the nylon-based polyamide fuel.
  • The Albuquerque Journal reported that the New Mexico Spaceport Authority is working on a business plan that would further expand the search for revenue sources beyond Virgin Galactic. The authority's executive director, Christine Anderson, was quoted as saying Spaceport America would target new tenants, including other space ventures, commercial projects, tourism, special events and merchandising.

NBCUniversal has established a multi-platform partnership with Virgin Galactic to track the development of SpaceShipTwo.