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.
Mark Greenberg/Clay Observatory for Virgina Galactic/AP
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.