Image: Virgin Galactic's six-passenger, two-pilot spaceplane takes its first ride down the runway on Monday. Credit: Virgin Galactic Virgin Galactic has been awarded a license from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate its six-passenger, two-pilot spaceship, known as SpaceShipTwo, the company said Monday.
The license covers commercial flights of the spaceship, but stipulates that certain conditions must be met before passengers, or what the FAA calls "space flight participants" can be aboard.
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Virgin Galactic "must successfully verify the integrated performance of the SpaceShipTwo/White Knight Two vehicle hardware and any software in an operational flight environment before allowing any space flight participant on board during a flight. Verification must include flight testing, and the results must be provided to the FAA prior to conducting a mission with a space flight participant on board," the FAA wrote in an email.
White Knight Two is the carrier jet that will ferry SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of about 50,000 feet before releasing it so the spaceship can fire its rocket engine and catapult itself some 62 miles above Earth.
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At that altitude, passengers will see the the curvature of the planet set against the blackness of space and experience a few minutes of weightlessness.
So far, about 700 people have put down deposits or paid to fly on SpaceShipTwo. Rides cost $250,000.
The first SpaceShipTwo was destroyed during a fatal test flight in Mojave, California, on Oct. 31, 2014. Virgin Galactic's sister company, The Spaceship Company, was about 65 percent finished with the second ship at the time of the accident.
That vehicle, unveiled in February, started its test flight program on Monday with a taxi ride down the runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port.
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"The granting of our operator license is an important milestone for Virgin Galactic, as is our first taxi test for our new spaceship," Mike Moses, Virgin Galactic senior vice president of operations, said in a statement. "We still have much work ahead to fully test this spaceship in flight."
The company has not yet released a date for the start of commercial operations.
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