Virgin Galactic's VSS Enterprise spaceship flew for the first time Monday morning, carried in place between the twin cockpits of its mothership, Eve. The coupled aircraft took off from Mojave Air and Spaceport in California at 7:05 a.m. local time. "This is a momentous day for the Scaled and Virgin Teams," said Burt Rutan, designer of the ships and founder of Scaled Composites, which built the aircraft. "The captive-carry flight signifies the start of what we believe will be an extremely exciting and successful spaceship flight-test program." Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, said the first flight was a "major step" in his project to fly tourists into suborbital space. "Watching VSS Enterprise fly for the first time really brings home what beautiful, ground-breaking vehicles Burt and his team have developed for us," Branson said. "The Scaled team is uniquely qualified to bring this important and incredible dream to reality. Today was another major step along that road and a testament to U.S. engineering and innovation." The first flight lasted about three hours and reached altitudes up to 45,000 feet, according to Wired.com.
The VSS Enterprise test-flight program will continue though 2010 and 2011, progressing from captive carry to independent glide and then powered flight, prior to the start of commercial operations, the company said. The spaceship will be powered by a unique hybrid rocket motor, which is currently under development. It utilizes the unique feather configuration that allowed Rutan's original SpaceShipOne to successfully re-enter the atmosphere.