WASHINGTON, April 29 (RIA Novosti) –Virgin Galactic took a giant leap forward in its quest to carry paying passengers into space when SpaceShipTwo flew under its own power for the first time Monday as test pilots fired the spacecraft’s rocket engine during a short flight over the Mojave Desert in California, the pioneering space tourism company said.
The ground-breaking flight means Virgin Galactic could make its maiden test flight into space as early as the end of this year, said Sir Richard Branson, whose Virgin Group co-owns Virgin Galactic with Abu Dhabi’s aabar Investments.
“For the first time, we were able to prove the key components of the system, fully integrated and in flight,” Branson said after watching SpaceShipTwo’s historic self-powered flight from the ground.
“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,” Branson said in a statement posted on Virgin Galactic’s website.
If test flights continue to go well, “we could have the first commercial flights into space in early 2014,” Jeff Carr of Griffin Communications Group, which handles Virgin Galactic’s media relations, told RIA Novosti.
Around 45 minutes into Monday’s flight, test pilots Mark Stucky and Mike Alsbury ignited SpaceShipTwo’s rocket in midair after being dropped by a carrier vessel from a height of around 46,000 feet (14,020 meters) above the Earth.
After the rocket was fired, the spacecraft soared forward and upward, reaching a peak altitude of 56,000 feet (17,068 meters) and breaking the sound barrier, before gliding safely back to the ground. The engine burn lasted 16 seconds as planned, Virgin Galactic said.
Virgin Galactic plans to run commercial spaceflights from Spaceport America in New Mexico, with passengers paying $200,000 for a ride into space.