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Dozens apply for space pilot jobs

Virgin Galactic

SpaceShipTwo and its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, fly together above California's Mojave Desert.

Virgin Galactic is looking for three good space pilots to fly its suborbital SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, which is already in the midst of flight tests. Although astronaut experience is preferred, it’s not necessary. But if you’re not an experienced test pilot, don’t bother.

More than 150 would-be spacefliers have sent in their applications since the job posting went up on Monday, Virgin Galactic spokeswoman Christine Choi told me via email today. And the in-box is due to remain open until April 30.

The company, backed by British billionaire Richard Branson, has been working on the development of the first SpaceShipTwo craft (dubbed the VSS Enterprise) with California-based Scaled Composites. The suborbital space plane's design is based on SpaceShipOne, which won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private spaceflight back in 2004. SpaceShipTwo will be significantly bigger, capable of accommodating six passengers and two pilots.

The flight plan calls for SpaceShipTwo to be dropped from its carrier airplane, the giant WhiteKnightTwo, and then fire its hybrid rocket engine to rise to an altitude of more than 65 miles, past the international boundary of outer space. From that height, the riders will be able to see the curving Earth below the black sky of space, and experience several minutes of weightlessness. After a re-entry plunge hat provides as much as 6 G's of acceleration, the plane will glide back to a runway landing.

Virgin Galactic is charging $200,000 for a tourist package that includes pre-flight briefings and the suborbital space ride. Around 400 customers have already put down deposits. The expectation is that passenger flights would begin in 2012, but that schedule depends on how the current test program goes. 

Unpowered glide tests began last October, and Scaled expects to begin rocket-powered tests later this year. So far, Scaled's test pilots have been taking turns behind the controls of SpaceShipTwo as well as WhiteKnightTwo. The pilots to be hired by Virgin Galactic will be in on the test program at California's Mojave Air and Space Port as well as the commercial flights expected to originate from New Mexico's Spaceport America. Virgin Galactic says the first new hire would "ideally start with us in June 2011."

Here are a few of Virgin Galactic's "essentials" for applicants:

  • U.S. citizenship (to satisfy export regulations).
  • A current FAA commercial (or equivalent) pilot license and FAA medical clearance.
  • Degree-level qualification in a relevant technical field.
  • Graduate of a recognized test pilot school, with at least two and a half years of postgraduate flight test experience.
  • Diverse flying background with a minimum of 3,000 hours flying, to include considerable experience of large multi-engine aircraft and high-performance fast jet aircraft and low lift-to-drag experience in complex aircraft.
  • Operational experience in an aerospace aviation project or business.
  • Preference given to those with experience in spaceflight, commercial flight operations or flight instruction.

The new hires would report to Virgin Galactic's chief test pilot, David MacKay, a Virgin Atlantic jet pilot who has been in training to take SpaceShipTwo's controls himself. Choi said two other pilots who had been designated to participate in the test program were no longer in the running "due to citizenship."

Virgin Galactic isn't the only game in town when it comes to spaceflight. Just down the street in Mojave, XCOR Aerospace has employed former NASA astronaut Rick Searfoss as the chief test pilot for the development of its Lynx rocket plane. Several former space station commanders are serving as executives for spaceship companies such as SpaceX (with Expedition 6's Ken Bowersox), Orbital Sciences Corp. (with Expedition 3's Frank Culbertson) and Excalibur Almaz (with Expedition 10's Leroy Chiao).

Now the space shuttle program is nearing its end, and NASA is facing a years-long spaceflight gap — which means more former astronauts may be thinking about making the jump to the private sector. It'd be interesting to find out how many of Virgin Galactic's scores of applicants are current or former astronauts. But no matter what their experience level is, Virgin Galactic plans to take a lot of care in making its choice.

"We're going to look for the best of the best," the company's president, George Whitesides, told Aviation Week & Space Technology. "We're not in a huge rush. We're going to put this out and we're going to see who applies. Obviously we want to hire these folks as soon as we get good qualified folks, but we don't want to rush it, because these are going to be among the most important hires that we make."

Other developments on the new space frontier:

• The Commercial Spaceflight Federation announced that retired Navy Rear Adm. Craig Steidle, a former NASA executive, would become its president on May 15. In 2004 and 2005, Steidle served as NASA's first associate adinistrator for exploration systems and helped draw up the now-canceled Constellation Program to return to the moon.

"The commercial space industry truly represents the future of America in space, and I’m excited to be a part of it," Steidle said in today's announcement. "This industry is inspiring kids, keeping America economically competitive, creating thousands of jobs and ensuring our leadership in space. It is a privilege to lead the federation as we embark on the grandest adventure of the 21st century: opening up space to everyone."

Steidle succeeds Bretton Alexander, a former White House policy analyst who is leaving his post at the federation to pursue other projects.

• SpaceX founder Elon Musk said there's a "decent chance" that he would make shares in his company available in an initial public offering toward the end of next year. "It's something that we are considering," he told journalists during a Tuesday briefing at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Musk made hundreds of millions of dollars after Paypal, a company he helped found, was sold to eBay in 2002. Since then, he has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on SpaceX as well as other ventures such as Tesla Motors and SolarCity. Last year's Tesla IPO generated an estimated $24 million gain for Musk.

SpaceX is holding contracts potentially worth billions of dollars for future resupply of the International Space Station, plus a healthy portfolio of commercial launch contracts. Musk has said the company is in the black already. Last week, he unveiled an effort to develop a Falcon Heavy rocket that would compete with the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin for Air Force heavy-lift launch contracts.

• Boeing says it's close to deciding which launch vehicle would be used for unmanned flight tests of its CST-100 orbital space taxi, and probably for early flights with crew members, Space News reports. The CST-100 development timetable depends to some extent on whether NASA chooses Boeing to receive funding under the second phase of the agency's Commercial Crew Development program, or CCDev 2. The CCDev 2 announcement is still pending, but Boeing's John Elbon said he was "hopeful that it happens relatively soon."

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