Fun With Licensing: Virgin Galactic, Moon Express, and the F-35A | Vol. 3 / No. 41

Photo: Virgin Galactic’s latest: the VSS Unity | Photo: Virgin Galactic

This week’s news roundup has a theme, which for kicks I’m going to call “Fun With Licensing.” The US government licensed three things this week, all of which are very interesting stories in and of themselves, so let’s deal with them one at a time.

Virgin Galactic

First, Virgin Galactic received the go-ahead from the US Federal Aviation Administration to take tourists to space. That’s right, the SpaceShipTwo (aka VSS Unity) is now able to take people to the edge of space for fun and profit. Well, not now, exactly: the license acts more like an IF-THEN statement for commercial flight. IF Virgin Galactic can prove that the integration of SpaceShipTwo and its carrier White Knight Two functions properly, and IF it can demonstrate that all the software on board functions in an operational environment, THEN they can take tourists up. So in terms of licenses, this is more like a learner’s permit: Virgin can get behind the wheel to practice, but they can’t carry passengers around until they pass some more tests. Still, it’s a good step forward for the space tourism company and for the industry in general. You can read more about the story over at Science Alert and at Virgin Galactic.

To the moon! | Photo: Per, CC BY-SA 2.0
To the moon! | Photo: Per, CC BY-SA 2.0

Moon Express

Two, the US government has cleared Moon Express to land on the lunar surface as part of the Google Lunar X Prize. Now, I would say it was the FAA that granted the permission, but it isn’t that simple. The universe beyond Earth orbit is governed by the Outer Space Treaty. Among other things, it requires that any non-governmental mission to “the moon and other celestial bodies” be approved by the country from which it originates, and that the country’s government is, essentially, responsible for its actions. It also mandates that exploration of “the moon and other celestial bodies” be conducted “so as to avoid their harmful contamination” (which, among other things, explains why NASA is partnering with SpaceX to decontaminate its Red Dragon mission). According to Ars Technica, the general feeling in the US government was that they wanted to give approval to Moon Express, but since approval had never been given to anyone before, they weren’t exactly sure how to go about it. After months of wrangling and the involvement of the FAA, NASA, the US Department of State, and the White House (as well as bit parts played by the FCC, NOAA, and the Department of Defense), they’ve finally figured out how to give Moon Express the green light. They’re really hoping to come up with a standardized procedure in the future. If you want to read more about the Google Lunar X Prize, the licensing process, or Moon Express’s MX-1 lander, check out Ars Technica’s article or the Google Lunar X Prize website.

The F-35 | Photo: Rennett Stowe, CC BY 2.0
The F-35 | Photo: Rennett Stowe, CC BY 2.0

F-35A Lightning II

And three, after a decade and a half of massive cost overruns and technological delays, the US Air Force has at long last cleared the F-35 for combat. On August 2, the Air Force declared their first batch of F-35As as IOC, or as having Initial Operational Capability. In mid-July it was announced that the 34th Fighter Squadron, previously an F-16 Fighting Falcon unit mothballed in 2010, would re-enter service as the first F-35 Lightning II squadron. The roll-out is beginning at Hill Air Force Base, where, in a July 27 announcement, they announced that they had 12 planes and 21 combat-mission-ready pilots so they could file for IOC. This week’s news comes as the culmination of that filing. Hill AFB should be home to three squadrons with a total of 72 F-35s by 2019. The F-35 program has faced a lot of criticism not just because of the trillion-dollar projected price tag, but also because unfortunate things kept happening to the prototypes, like losing fake dogfights to F-16s, and catching fire when trying to take off. Eventually, once they have it fine-tuned and all the bugs shaken out, it’ll likely be a fantastic machine — and it had better be: the Air Force alone has ordered over 1700 of them, and that’s not counting the number ordered by the US Marines and the US Navy. You can read more about the roll-out at the US Air Force and at Defense News.


In case you missed any of the stories we covered this week, here’s what we got up to!

If you didn’t read any of those, take a minute to check them out, you won’t regret it!

Best of the Rest

And of course, because reasons (like time and energy) here’s all the things I didn’t get to this week. It’s linkspam time!

I leave you today with video taken by a camera NASA designed to view something we’ve never seen before: the inside of a rocket plume, which is traditionally too bright to make out any details in. Pretty cool, right?

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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.