Alan Boyle writes: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane was set loose for its first gliding flight today, about 45,000 feet above California’s Mojave Desert — and landed to a chorus of cheers minutes later. That’s one small step for gliders, but one giant leap for SpaceShipTwo and the future of suborbital space tourism.

The free-flying test was chronicled as it happened by Popular Mechanics’ Joe Bargmann from the Mojave Air and Space Port, where the spaceship’s builder, Scaled Composites, has its headquarters. Scaled has been working on the craft for years as a commercial follow-up to the history-making, prize-winning spaceflights of SpaceShipOne in 2004. The $100 million-plus development effort is being bankrolled by Virgin’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, who was among the crowd watching today’s flight.

More than 300 would-be passengers have already put down more than $45 million in deposits for $200,000-a-seat rides on the plane. The experience will include a roller-coaster rocket ride to a spaceworthy altitude of more than 65 miles, several minutes of weightlessness, a picture-window view of the curving Earth beneath the black sky of space … and spaceflight bragging rights for years afterward.

Eventually, the price is expected to work its way down to mere tens of thousands of dollars, particularly as competitors such as Armadillo Aerospace, Blue Origin and XCOR Aerospace join the market.

SpaceShipTwo release

Photo: Clay Observatory via Virgin Galactic

SpaceShipTwo separates from its White Knight Two mothership to begin its first free-flying glide test.

Today’s test flight began with SpaceShipTwo hooked to its White Knight Two mothership for takeoff. Once the two linked-up planes reached 45,000 feet, the crews prepared to unhook the smaller craft for its glide. “We are armed,” the cockpit crew radioed, according to Popular Mechanics’ account. “Four, three, two, one, release release release!”

SpaceShipTwo glided through the air for 11 minutes and landed back at the Mojave airstrip, with White Knight Two touching down soon afterward. In a Twitter update, Virgin Galactic reported that SpaceShipTwo, also known as the VSS Enterprise, completed “her first solo glide flight successfully.”

The glide test, piloted by Scaled Composites engineer Pete Siebold with Mike Alsbury as co-pilot, marked another milestone for SpaceShipTwo’s test program. It came less than a year after the plane was rolled out for its first public viewing, and less than seven months after its first “captive-carry” flight.

“This was one of the most exciting days in the whole history of Virgin,” Branson said in a statement released after the test. “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. 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.”

The Mojave Air and Space Port’s general manager, Stuart Witt, hailed today’s test in a statement released by the Commercial Spaceflight Federation: “First flight days are always extraordinary,” Witt said. “This team effort by so many has been punctuated by a successful first test flight, and now everyone seeking a ride to space is a giant step closer.”

More glides will follow in the months ahead to fine-tune the plane’s aerodynamics. SpaceShipTwo’s first powered tests, which will involve actually lighting up the plane’s hybrid rocket engine, are expected to begin next year. The rocket ship’s designer, Burt Rutan, has said he’d like to fly 50 to 100 tests before SpaceShipTwo begins commercial service €” which would likely mean the first paying passengers could step aboard in 2012 or 2013.

The National Geographic Channel is scheduled to air a documentary about the making of SpaceShipTwo on Oct. 18. Here’s a press preview:

SpaceShipTwo Free Flight
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