Virgin Galactic
June 1, 2014

FAA Grants Virgin Galactic Access To Airspace In Historic Agreement

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Commercial space travel is one step closer to being a reality, thanks to a historic deal between Virgin Galactic, Spaceport America and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) governing suborbital flights launched from the New Mexico facility.

The first-of-its-kind agreement establishes how the FAA will coordinate with Spaceport America, which will serve as the launch base for Sir Richard Branson’s suborbital flights, said Forbes staff writer Alex Knapp. Essentially, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (which operates the spaceport) will work in conjunction with the FAA’s Albuquerque Air Route Traffic Control Center to make sure that airspace is clear prior to lift-off.

“Our team is working hard to begin routine and affordable space launches from Spaceport America and this agreement brings us another step closer to that goal,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said in a statement. “We are grateful to the FAA and New Mexico for their partnership to achieve this milestone.”

As part of the agreement, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority also has secured an agreement with the US Army’s White Sands Missile Range to support space launch activities within that military facility’s airspace. Virgin Galactic has reached deals with Edwards Air Force Base and the FAA’s Joshua Control Facility to cover spaceflights in California, covering the company’s airspace needs through the rest of the test flight program in that state.

Knapp reported Saturday that Virgin Galactic hopes to launch its first flight prior to the end of the year, but reports surfaced last month suggesting that flights would have to be delayed until at least 2015 due to the discovery of a defect in the wings of its WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane. In response to those rumors, Whitesides said that the firm still planned to conduct its first flight in “just a few short months from now.”

Even if its vehicles are in good working order, however, Knapp explains that there are still several more steps that the company needs to complete before it can lift off. For one thing, Branson's team still has to receive an FAA license in order to operate commercial flights, and for another, SpaceShipTwo needs to undergo additional testing.

“Earlier this month, the company announced that it was permanently switching fuels for its engines from a rubber-based fuel to a plastic one,” the Forbes writer said. “The company stated that this decision was based on ‘data collected over an extensive development program.’ The next series of test flights this year will utilize the new fuel.”

Previously, Branson told reporters that the first flight would not take place “until we’re 100 percent sure it’s obviously safe,” adding that he “would be very, very disappointed if it doesn’t happen this year.” Even so, he said that the process of building space-faring vehicles was taking longer than he and his colleagues thought it would.