Virgin Galactic Gears Up for Building Third SpaceShipTwo

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Last October's fatal crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane is still under investigation — but the company's founder says that the second SpaceShipTwo is on track to go into flight testing and that engineers will start building a third SpaceShipTwo by the end of the year.

In addition to building spaceships, Virgin Galactic will "work on our fit-out of Spaceport America; astronaut training program; commercial operational readiness; LauncherOne program to launch small satellites; and much more," British billionaire Richard Branson said in a Thursday blog posting.

The first SpaceShipTwo broke up in midflight during a rocket-powered test on Halloween, killing one pilot and injuring the other. The National Transportation Safety Board has not yet released its final report on the investigation, but Branson said Virgin Galactic's manufacturing operation, The Spaceship Company, would make "any modifications or improvements that we feel are necessary to improve the safety of the vehicle."

TSC and Virgin Galactic will be in charge of building and testing future SpaceShipTwo planes as well as a second WhiteKnightTwo mothership — taking over the reins from Scaled Composites, which built and tested the first SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo for Virgin Galactic. One of Scaled's test pilots, Mark "Forger" Stucky, recently switched over to Virgin Galactic as part of the transition.

About 700 customers have paid as much as $250,000 apiece to reserve seats on future SpaceShipTwo flights to the edge of outer space. The timetable for commercial operations depends on how the flight test program proceeds once it resumes.

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

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