Virgin set to resume spaceship test flights

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The space tourism company that suffered a tragic setback when its experimental rocket-powered spaceship broke apart over the California desert could resume test flights as early as next summer if it can finish building a replacement craft.

The sleek composite shell and tail section of the new craft is sitting inside the Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing plant in Mojave, California.

It is beginning to look like a spaceship, but Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides said there was much work to be done, from relatively simple things such as installing windows to the more complex fitting of flight controls and other wiring.

The ship, called SpaceShip
Two Serial No 2, will replace the one that was destroyed last week after its feathering system that controls descent deployed prematurely and aerodynamic forces ripped it apart, killing the co-pilot and seriously injuring the pilot.

In the wake of the accident, workers have focused on building the new ship.

“That’s provided some solace to all of us, and I think there’s sort of a therapeutic benefit to folks to be able to put their energies into constructive work,” Mr Whitesides said.

He said the company, founded by Virgin tycoon Sir Richard Branson, would be able to continue flying its mother ship – the much larger jet-powered plane that launches the rocket ship at higher altitudes – while investigators look into the cause of the deadly crash with the company’s co-operation.

It is possible that test flights for the next spaceship could begin within six months, before the investigation is scheduled to conclude, Mr Whitesides said.