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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.

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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.

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.

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