Virgin Galactic is returning to powered flights, CEO says, in a crucial next step for the spaceship company

Key Points
  • "We're ready to go into powered flight," Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said on Thursday.
  • Virgin Galactic has not tested a powered flight of one of its spaceships since the fatal crash of Spaceship Enterprise on Oct. 31, 2014.
  • Whitesides also said Virgin Orbit hopes to bring planetary exploration costs down to "maybe $20 million" per mission, from the current price tag of about $2 billion.
George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, stands inside Virgin Galactic's new LauncherOne facility March 6, 2015 in Long Beach, California.
Getty Images

Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides said his company will soon return to powered flights for the first time in three years.

"We're ready to go into powered flight," Whitesides said on Thursday at the Mars Society Convention in Irvine, California.

Virgin Galactic has not tested a powered flight of one of its spaceships since the fatal crash of Spaceship Enterprise on Oct. 31, 2014. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found the pilot prematurely unlocked the spaceship's "feather system," causing the vehicle to break apart during rocket-powered flight.

Engine testing for the spaceship company's new vehicle, Spaceship Unity, is complete, and "a very small number of glide flights" remain before Virgin Galactic returns to powered flight, Whitesides said.

Virgin Galactic's subsidiary The Spaceship Company is also building two more spaceships, the hulls of which were visible in a photo Whitesides showed of the company's manufacturing facility.

Building two more Virgin Galactic spaceships

Source: Virgin Galactic

Whitesides also revealed more details about Virgin Orbit, the company spun off by Virgin Galactic to develop an air-launched platform for small satellites.

Virgin Orbit has 350 people working at its plant in Long Beach and will "be launching 300-kilogram missions to low-Earth orbit, starting next year," Whitesides said.

Tying into the planetary theme of the conference, Whitesides added that Virgin Orbit hopes to be able to launch planetary satellites using the lower-weight rockets, with the goal of distributing satellites around the solar system.

"You could actually be doing planetary exploration for maybe $20 million, instead of $200 million or $2 billion" per mission, Whitesides said.

The company, a subsidiary of billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Group, maintains the aspiration of having a fleet of vehicles operating from New Mexico, where Virgin Galactic plans to use Spaceport America as a home base.

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