Virgin Galactic on Sunday said that it had successfully completed the first piloted free flight of the VSS Enterprise, the experimental space ship previously known as SpaceShipTwo.
The company said that that the VSS Enterprise was released by its mothership, Eve, at an altitude of 45,000 feet and was successfully flown by pilots Pete Siebold and Mike Alsbury back to California's Mojave Air and Space Port.
"The VSS Enterprise was a real joy to fly, especially when one considers the fact that the vehicle has been designed not only to be a Mach 3.5 spaceship capable of going into space but also one of the worlds highest altitude gliders," said Siebold in a statement.
The goals of the mission included systems verification, evaluation of the ship's handling characteristics and controls, comparison of actual flight data to projections made during the design and simulation process, verification of the ship's lift-to-drag ratio while gliding, and landing experience.
Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, characterized the launch as one of the most exciting in the history of his company. "Now, the sky is no longer the limit and we will begin the process of pushing beyond to the final frontier of space itself over the next year," he said in a statement.
Virgin Galactic says that is has received deposits from 370 customers for more than $50 million.
The VSS Enterprise will eventually depart from and land at Spaceport America, in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Spaceport America has been providing commercial space launch services since 2006 and is expected to become fully operational in 2011. A runway inauguration ceremony is planned for Friday, October 22nd, 2010, at Spaceport America.
On Monday, President Obama signed the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which sets aside funds for private companies developing systems and technology that will help astronauts get to and from the International Space Station. It also expands funding for commercial space research and development.