Launch aircraft development continues while suborbital ship awaits investigation into fatal explosion in California
Work on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo (SS2) is in a hiatus while the investigation into July's fatal Scaled Composites accident continues. A California Occupational Safety and Health report is expected by 26 January.
The Mojave, California accident involving nitrous oxide, which was Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne's (SS1) oxidiser, killed three employees of SS2 designer Scaled Composites and injured three more.
SS2 work had reached the stage where the prototype has been partially assembled and was ready for on-board systems to be fitted. But instead of work continuing with that, development of the SS2's carrier aircraft White Knight II is moving ahead.
Virgin Galactic's chief operating officer Alex Tai said at the Royal Aeronautical Society's 4 October Sputnik anniversary event that "we are waiting for the [accident investigation] report. We are still a few years away from operations."
Although work on the rocket glider is suspended, automatic main propulsion cut-off in case of non-nominal trajectories and an auto pilot are under consideration. Tai added that the SS2 simulator is now working and said that it had "stunning visuals".
A launch and entry suit is also being designed, but there is no final decision on whether cabin crew and passengers will wear them. Tai explained that the customer's training is to be considered part of an "informed consent package" and that at different stages the passengers' ability to cope with the flight conditions would be measured. Under US law spaceflight participants must give informed consent before they fly.
While acknowledging that spaceflight was inherently risky, Tai repeatedly stressed Virgin's commitment to designing all aspects of the programme around safety. "Safety is our North Star," he said.
To help with safety and deal with possible passenger anxiety, in-flight cabin attendants have also not been ruled out.