April 29, 2013, 3:20 PM — Virgin Galactic is one flight closer to space tourism, launching its first rocket-powered flight of a space vehicle earlier Monday.
The company, which is looking to be the world's first commercial spaceline, now is in the final phase of vehicle testing after launching SpaceShip Two at 10:02 a.m. ET from the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, Calif.
SpaceShipTwo lifted off aboard its carrier craft, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo. After 45 minutes and at an altitude of 47,000 feet, SpaceShip Two was released from its carrier and its pilots ignited its rocket. The rocket engine burned for an expected 16 seconds, propelling the spacecraft to an altitude of 55,000 feet.
Virgin Galactic reported that during the rocket burn, the spacecraft went supersonic, achieving Mach 1.2.
"The first powered flight of Virgin Spaceship Enterprise was without any doubt, our single most important flight test to date," said Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson, in a statement. "Today's supersonic success opens the way for a rapid expansion of the spaceship's powered flight envelope, with a very realistic goal of full space flight by the year's end."
Branson called today's test flight "history in the making."
The company noted that the entire flight test lasted a little more than 10 minutes, and ended with a smooth landing around 11 a.m.
"The rocket motor ignition went as planned, with the expected burn duration, good engine performance and solid vehicle handling qualities throughout," said Virgin Galactic President and CEO George Whitesides, in a statement. "The successful outcome of this test marks a pivotal point for our program. We will now embark on a handful of similar powered flight tests, and then make our first test flight to space."
The company is planning on making its first space flight before the end of this year.
Virgin Galactic already is taking reservations for space flights.
People can sign up to be what the company calls Pioneer Astronauts, which would enable them to be among the first 1,000 people to go into space with the company. It also requires a full upfront payment of $200,000. Virgin Galactic noted on its website that these seats are nearly sold out.
Those interested also can sign up for the Spaceship Charter program, which costs $1 million and gets the buyer an exclusive flight with five friends.