LOS ANGELES -- Commercial space tourism got a boost when Virgin Galactic's rocket plane successfully completed its first manned test flight at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
The aircraft, dubbed SpaceShipTwo, was dropped from a carrier plane at 45,000 feet and glided without power for more than 10 minutes before landing on the Mojave Desert runway Sunday.
The carrier plane, which resembles a flying catamaran because of its two fuselages, and the six-passenger rocket ship 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 the spacecraft launching from the ground, the carrier craft will fly SpaceShipTwo under its wing to 50,000 feet, where the spaceship will separate before igniting its rocket engines. 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 company, Scaled Composites.
Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, hopes to make its first passenger flight next year from the yet-to-be finished Spaceport America in New Mexico. The company said it has taken about 370 reservations for rides.
Branson was present for 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.