Virgin Galactic is keen to bring intrepid travelers into space on its SpaceShipTwo vehicle, but the company is also looking at alternative revenue sources. Among them, renting out the WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) launch support aircraft for government or private businesses to use for science, research, and national security applications. There’s just one problem: Legally it cannot do that.
Because WhiteKnightTwo is considered an experimental aircraft by the Federal Aviation Administration using it in this manner would be a violation of 14 CFR 91.319(a)(2), which states that “no person may operate an aircraft that has an experimental certificate – (1) For other than the purpose for which the certificate was issued; or (2) Carrying persons or property for compensation or hire.” In a filing made Tuesday The Space Company and Virgin Galactic jointly petitioned for exemption from the regulations.
The companies describes the opportunity thusly:
WK2 has unique and appealing flight characteristics and abilities that other aircraft do not have. Specifically, WK2’s ability to reach altitudes in excess of 50,000 ft, a payload capacity of approximately 30,000 pounds, and its ability to fly at low speeds at a stable altitude, make it an excellent platform for science, research, and national security applications. In addition, WK2 provides an excellent high altitude, stable platform for validation of unique cutting-edge technologies for earth sensing. The WK2 aircraft can also climb quickly and fly at high altitudes that provide the capability to perform onboard research and development activities.
VG and TSC have been approached by potential customers, including NASA, NOAA, and certain defense contractors inquiring about supporting the testing of payloads and carrying onboard experiments, which are not related to the original purpose of the WK2 aircraft. A specific example would be to carry an atmospheric sensor and collect data through various altitudes from the surface up to 45,000 feet above mean sea level (MSL) and possibly as high as 53,000 feet MSL.
In order to leverage WK2’s unique capabilities for flights to further science, research and national security purposes for US Government and commercial customers, VG and TSC must first overcome the regulatory hurdle identified in this letter.
The filing further notes the intention to not offer “any commercial commercial services outside true research and development related flights.” The unique capabilities of WK2 are seen as offering a unique and powerful platform to support “scientific research missions, further development of the commercial space industry, and support Department of Defense (DOD) national security research and development needs. These include high altitude flights of extended duration with sizable external payloads.
This play is slightly more realistic than the Mach 3 aircraft concept announced earlier this month. Developing this customer base will also come much more quickly and with far lower expenses, assuming the US government cooperates.
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