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Virgin Galactic glides closer to $200,000-a-seat space shots

Virgin Galactic gave its spacecraft a first test flight Sunday. It glided to a perfect landing from an elevation of 45,000 feet. Virgin Galactic hopes to start flights for tourists within 18 months.

By Staff writer / October 11, 2010

The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, or VSS Enterprise, glides toward the earth on its first test flight after release from the mother ship, WhiteKnightTwo, also known as VMS Eve, over the Mojave, Calif., area early Sunday.

Mark Greenberg/Clay Observatory for Virgina Galactic/AP

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The quest by Virgin Galactic to turn the world's first private manned spaceship into a multimillion dollar tourism industry took a crucial step forward above the high desert of California Sunday.

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For the first time, SpaceShipTwo – essentially, version 2.0 of the spacecraft that won the X Prize in 2004 – took a test flight. The goal is to have the spacecraft operational by 2011, when it will take two Virgin Galactic pilots and six space tourists – at $200,000 a seat – beyond the official boundary of space, 62 miles up.

In a year that has already seen private company SpaceX launch its Falcon 9 rocket and President Obama introduce a space plan that shifts more responsibility to private industry, Sunday's test flight was a moment to further mark the acceleration of the nascent space industry.

The potentially woolier test flights for Virgin Galactic are still to come, though. SpaceShipTwo, also known as the VSS Enterprise – yes, in a nod to Star Trek – merely glided to earth after being dropped from its mother ship at an altitude of 45,000 feet (8.5 miles). Rocket tests lie ahead.

But Burt Rutan, the mutton-chopped engineering mind behind Virgin Galactic, pronounced himself pleased with the Enterprise's first flight, which would simulate the last phase of any future Virgin Galactic spaceshot. Mr. Rutan notes on a Fast Company video how smoothly pilot Pete Siebold managed touchdown.

"Pete was able to just kiss the ground with it," Rutan said. "When you do that, and you've never flown the airplane before – never landed it – what that tells you is that you've got a phenomenally nice flying machine."

Virgin Galactic owner Richard Branson appeared thrilled to the point of giddiness. He recently promised the Virgin Galactic would begin its space shots within 18 months. More than 340 people have signed up, with about 100 paying the full $200,000 fare up front in order to put themselves at the front of the queue. Others have made downpayments of $20,000.

The Enterprise looks largely identical to its predecessor, SpaceShipOne. While SpaceShipOne carried only one pilot and weights to approximate two other passengers, the Enterprise has six passenger seats.

It is also scheduled to lift off from Spaceport America in Alamogordo, N.M., which is currently being refurbished for the purpose. High-end travel agents recently took a tour of southern New Mexico in advance of the expected first launch in 18 months.

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