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Virgin Galactic rocket plane completes first manned glide flight

October 11, 2010 |  9:52 am

Commercial space tourism got a boost Sunday when Virgin Galactic's rocket ship successfully completed its first manned test flight at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

The rocket plane, dubbed SpaceShipTwo, was dropped from a carrier aircraft at 45,000 feet and made an unpowered glide for more than 10 minutes before landing on the desert runway.

The carrier aircraft, which resembles a flying catamaran because of its two fuselages, and the six-passenger rocket plane are in the midst of a test-flight program that will continue until Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company that owns the planes, believes it can begin commercial operations.

Instead of launching a rocket into space, the carrier craft will fly SpaceShipTwo under its wing to 50,000 feet, where the spaceship will separate and blast off. The craft will climb to the edge of space, or about 60 miles above the Earth's surface.

At that suborbital altitude, passengers will experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth. The price for the experience: $200,000.

The idea was developed by Burt Rutan, a maverick aerospace engineer, and his Mojave–based company, Scaled Composites.

Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, hopes to make its first passenger flight sometime next year from the yet-to-be finished Spaceport America in New Mexico. The company said it has taken about 370 reservations for the ride.

Branson was present during Sunday's flight.

"For the first time since we seriously began the project in 2004, I watched the world's first manned commercial spaceship landing on the runway at Mojave Air and Space Port and it was a great moment," he said in a statement. "Now, the sky is no longer the limit and we will begin the process of pushing beyond to the final frontier of space itself over the next year."

-- W.J. Hennigan

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