ORLANDO—Virgin Galactic is 90% through the structural build of its second SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle and plans to assume control of the test program from its development partner Scaled Composites when flights resume later this year.

The first SS2, which was lost in a test accident over California’s Mojave Desert on Oct. 31, was in the final phases of a flight test program conducted by Scaled Composites, one of whose test pilots died in the crash. At the time of the accident, Scaled was on the verge of transferring full ownership and responsibility for flight testing of SS2 to Virgin following the planned completion of key contractual milestones, including the demonstration of supersonic re-entry and peak heating.

Speaking in depth for the first time about the accident and its aftermath, Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides says "the test flight accident was the toughest thing our business could undergo. After years of work we felt we were finally getting close to the start of commercial operations and our operations team was poised to take the baton from our partners at Scaled Composites as they carried out the final flights of their test flight program. But it was not to be."

Whitesides, who was speaking at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Science and Technology conference here, says "today, nine weeks after this fairly traumatic event, our company is turning the corner and looking to the future. Most of all, our team and our investors remain committed to the goal of opening up space for all. We will recover and learn the hard lessons from the accident and return to flight. It’s been a tough period but we have a tough team, and we knew this goal would not be easy to attain."

Virgin’s sister operation, The Spaceship Company (TSC), began assembly of a second SS2 in 2012. As a result "…our return to flight is closer than might otherwise have been expected," he adds. "We’ve been working away on this vehicle and we’ve made good progress. As we start 2015 we are focused on finishing the build of this vehicle during this year and getting back to flight test as soon as we can do so, safely and responsibly."

Virgin feels it is in a position to assume control of the forthcoming test effort because of the advanced state of testing at the time of the accident and because the second vehicle is being built by TSC rather than Scaled. Just as importantly, Virgin has now brought together a large team of experienced flight test personnel that will be able to take over from where Scaled left off. "When we return to flight we expect we will manage the flight test program ourselves as we have assembled a strong staff of test flight professionals with diverse backgrounds," Whitesides says. These include TSC president Doug Shane, who ran Scaled’s flight test operations, operations vice president Mike Moses, the former launch integration manager for NASA’s space shuttle program, and Todd Ericson, Virgin Galactic’s vice president of safety and test who was formerly chief of safety for the U.S. Air Force Flight Test Center. "Todd is also a pilot and part of a strong pilot corps comprised of several experienced military test pilots including one shuttle commander, a former U-2 and F-16 flight test pilot and Royal Air Force Harrier chief test pilot Dave MacKay."

Whitesides says "these experienced flight test professionals are now planning the flight test program for the second spaceship. That test program will not be the same as the first spaceship as we will now be able to take lessons learned from that first flight test program and apply them to the second. I expect we will be back into test flight this year, which provides a good target for our organization with a good target to focus on as we pursue our return to flight efforts." Although providing no specific timing on when the SS2 will return to powered flight tests, Whitesides indicates these could resume around mid-year. The vehicle has had "two-thirds" of its systems installed, he adds. Commercial sub-orbital space tourism and science flights are now expected to begin in 2016 from Virgin’s site in Spaceport America, New Mexico.

Although Whitesides could not comment directly about the accident pending the outcome of the National Transportation Safety Board investigation, he says media and public reaction resulted in "hard won" lessons about flight test and the risk-averse nature of society in general. "What is most troubling to me, and what was exposed by our accident, was that many members of the press and the public seemed to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of test. Whether on the ground or in the air, developmental test is meant to understand and improve and confirm the capabilities of new systems. Failure in the contest of test, while unfortunate, and in our case tragic, is essentially part of the deal."

As a result, Whitesides says changes will be made in the run-up to the resumption of flight tests with the new vehicle. "Proactive communications with the public and press is important to set expectations in advance," he says. "It is something I think we could have done better and it is something we will work further on as we approach our own return to flight."