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SpaceShipTwo taxi test
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, known as VSS Unity, is pulled behind a Range Rover Autobiography vehicle during its first taxi test at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic says it’s received an operator license from the Federal Aviation Administration for flying its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane into outer space with commercial payloads.

The craft, known as VSS Unity, has just begun on-the-ground taxi tests at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port – and it’s on track to begin flight tests as early as this month.

During today’s first taxi test, a Range Rover SUV pulled Unity down Mojave’s runway to evaluate and calibrate the craft’s navigation and communication/telemetry systems, Virgin Galactic said.

The initial flight tests will involve carrying Unity into the air while it’s firmly attached to its White Knight Two mother ship. If those captive-carry tests go well, White Knight Two will start releasing Unity for unpowered glide flights, and then for rocket-powered flights.

Virgin Galactic’s operator license, issued on July 29, clears the way for test flights from Mojave and for the transport of scientific and experimental payloads. The company said the license was awarded after “several years of in-depth interaction with the FAA.”

The two-year license specifies that the company won’t be able to take on paying passengers until the launch system’s performance is verified by its test program.

The most recent SpaceShipTwo flight test was in October 2014, when an earlier craft known as VSS Enterprise broke up just after turning on its hybrid rocket engine. Co-pilot Michael Alsbury was killed, and pilot Pete Siebold was injured.

The resulting investigation took months. Investigators cited a number of root causes for the accident, ranging from a miscue in the cockpit, to inadequate safeguards in the equipment, to lapses in training, to poor oversight by the FAA. Based on the findings, Virgin Galactic made changes in the hardware as well as the training regimen for test pilots.

Mike Moses, Virgin Galactic’s senior vice president of operations, hailed the granting of the license and today’s start of taxi tests as important milestones. “While we still have much work ahead to fully test this spaceship in flight, I am confident that our world-class team is up to the challenge,” he said in a statement.

Since the 2014 accident, Virgin Galactic has shied away from providing a timetable for commercial operations.

Once the test program is finished, Virgin Galactic aims to shift operations to Spaceport America in New Mexico. About 700 customers, including celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, have paid as much as $250,000 each to ride on Unity to the edge of outer space and back.

The company was founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, who intends to be one of the first passengers to get on board.

In addition to the suborbital SpaceShipTwo project, Virgin Galactic is working on a project known as LauncherOne to send satellites into orbit. Meanwhile, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin venture and XCOR Aerospace are working on their own suborbital launch systems for passengers and payloads.

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