Scaled Composites has been issued with the US Federal Aviation Administration's first licence to perform manned sub-orbital rocket flights, writes Graham Warwick. The first in a series of test flights by the company's SpaceShipOne was believed to be imminent as Flight International went to press.

The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation issued the licence on 1 April, approving "a sequence of sub-orbital flight spanning a one-year period". An FAA licence is required for US contenders in the international X Prize competition to launch a manned, reusable private space vehicle.

As the first US contender to be licensed, and with backing from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites has consolidated its lead over the 26 other teams in the X Prize race. Competition officials expect the $10 million prize for launching a vehicle able to carry three people to 100km (62 miles), returning to Earth and repeating the flight within two weeks, to be claimed later this year.

Mojave, California-based Scaled resumed SpaceShipOne flight testing on 15 March after a grounding to repair damage caused by a heavy landing following the 17 December flight, in which the rocket-powered vehicle became the first privately developed manned aircraft to exceed Mach 1. SpaceShipOne approached M1.2 and reached 68,000ft (20,700m) after release from the White Knight launch aircraft on the 17 December flight.

The 15 March flight, the vehicle's 12th, was an unpowered glide test for pilot proficiency, reaction-control system checks, and handling and performance evaluation with airframe thermal protection installed. The vehicle was released at 48,500ft, performed as expected and landed successfully while demonstrating maximum crosswind capability, says Scaled.

Source: Flight International