SpaceShipTwo's mothership, the twin-fuselage WhiteKnightTwo airplane, returned to flight this week after a timeout for inspections at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California — marking a transition in Virgin Galactic's effort to bring paying passengers to the edge of outer space.
The flights were the first to take place after the Federal Aviation Administration's annual inspection, and the first under a new regime that will shift control of flight operations from Mojave-based Scaled Composites, which is developing and testing the first SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, to Virgin Galactic.
"This is a key part of that transition from the end of the test flight program to the start of Virgin Galactic operations," William Pomerantz, Virgin Galactic's vice president for special projects, told NBC News.
Two of Virgin Galactic's pilots, Rick "CJ" Sturckow and Michael "Sooch" Masucci, were at the controls for WhiteKnightTwo's 150th flight on Monday and the 152nd outing on Wednesday, Pomerantz said. Scaled Composites test pilot Mark "Forger" Stucky sat alongside Masucci for flight No. 151 on Wednesday.
In the coming weeks, the Virgin-Scaled team is expected to hook SpaceShipTwo beneath WhiteKnightTwo and restart a series of tests leading toward the start of commercial operations.
During the powered tests, SpaceShipTwo would be dropped from the carrier airplane, then fire up its hybrid rocket engine to soar higher. Eventually, Virgin Galactic intends to send SpaceShipTwo to the 100-kilometer (62-mile) altitude mark that serves as the internationally accepted boundary of outer space.
Virgin Galactic's founder, British billionaire Richard Branson, says he wants to take a suborbital space ride on the rocket plane by the end of the year — but that depends on how the test schedule turns out. More than 700 customers have signed up for trips on SpaceShipTwo, at a price of as much as $250,000 a seat.
WhiteKnightTwo's return to flight was just one of the recent highlights in commercial spaceflight. Here are other headlines from the past week:
- Mojave-based XCOR Aerospace, which is working on the Lynx rocket plane for suborbital space trips, says it has acquired Space Expedition Corp., the Dutch-based travel company that's been signing up passengers for Lynx flights at $100,000 per seat.
- Mojave-based Masten Space Systems has won a $3 million contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, to work on the agency's XS-1 low-cost launch program.
- Penn State's Lunar Lion team has received new rocket engines that it expects to use on a prototype moon lander in a bid to win a share of the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize by the end of 2015. The university-led team is in the midst of a RocketHub crowdfunding campaign.
NBCUniversal has established a multi-platform partnership with Virgin Galactic to track the development of SpaceShipTwo and televise Richard Branson's spaceflight.