British billionaire Richard Branson's commercial space venture Virgin Galactic got one step closer to carrying tourists into space when a test pilot on Monday cracked the sound barrier over the Mojave desert.
For the first time, the company's SpaceShipTwo engaged its rocket motor, sped to Mach 1.2 and reached 56,000 feet in altitude.
The flight is the latest — and largest — milestone in Virgin Galactic's testing of technology it hopes to use to carry scores of paying customers into space multiple times a day.
"The first powered flight of Virgin Spaceship Enterprise was without any doubt our single most important flight test to date," said Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, 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."
The test flight took place shortly after sunrise Monday beginning on the desert runway at Mojave Air and Space Port, about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles. During the test, SpaceShipTwo was taken to about 46,000 feet by a carrier aircraft and dropped like a bomb.
After a short free fall, test pilots Mark Stucky and Mike Alsbury engaged the hybrid rocket motor, powered by nitrous oxide and a rubber compound, for 16 seconds, at which point SpaceShipTwo reached Mach 1.2 speeds.
The idea of Virgin Galactic routinely taking passengers to space this way was developed by retired maverick aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and his Mojave company, Scaled Composites.
Until now, astronauts have reached space packed tight in a capsule or shuttle attached to a high-powered rocket.
Instead, Virgin Galactic will use a WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft that will fly with the reusable SpaceShipTwo rocket plane under its wing to 50,000 feet, where the spaceship will separate and blast off.
When the rocket motor engages, it will power the spaceship to nearly 2,500 mph and take the pilot — and up to six passengers — to the edge of space, or more than 60 miles above the Earth's surface.
Once they reach that suborbital altitude, passengers will experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth. Then they will re-enter the atmosphere and glide back to the runway. The price for the experience: $200,000.
Virgin Galactic, founded by Branson, hopes to make its first passenger flight sometime next year from Spaceport America in New Mexico, where the company plans to conduct routine operations. The company said it has taken about 530 reservations for the ride.
The WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, which resembles a flying catamaran because it has two fuselages, and SpaceShipTwo are still in the midst of a test-flight program that will continue in Mojave until Virgin Galactic believes it can begin commercial operations.
Virgin Galactic's commercial space launch system is based on Rutan's SpaceShipOne, the world's first private manned spaceship, which successfully flew a test pilot to space and back three times during 2004 to win a $10 million X-Prize purse.
The prizewinning spacecraft caught the eye of Branson, who wanted to work with Rutan on a much bigger rocket ship that could send not only a pilot into space but also fare-paying passengers.
The enterprise was shrouded in secrecy for years. Then in 2007, during a test of the spaceship's propulsion system, an explosion killed three workers and injured three others. The blast exposed the secret project and reminded the public of the risks of rocketry.
The project endured, and Branson has since built a 68,000-square-foot facility at the space port for a joint venture, called Spaceship Co., to mass-produce its rocket ship and carrier aircraft.