GOLDEN, Colo. — The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo flew its first solo test flight Oct. 10 from Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

Though SpaceShipTwo did not reach space, the flight was a major milestone for the private suborbital spacecraft, which flew in glide mode for 11 minutes after being released from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane at an altitude of 13,700 meters.

Pilot Pete Siebold and his co-pilot, Mike Alsbury, controlled the suborbital craft to a safe runway landing.

SpaceShipTwo “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 world’s highest altitude gliders,” Siebold said.

Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic Chief Executive Officer George Whitesides were among those witnessing SpaceShipTwo’s first glide flight.

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

Whitesides added: “Now, our challenge going forward will be to complete our experimental program, obtain our FAA license and safely bring the system into service at Spaceport America, New Mexico.”

Designed to carry six ticket-holding passengers, the suborbital spaceship is named VSS Enterprise. Branson is backing the development of the spaceliner, establishing the Virgin Galactic firm to offer passengers suborbital flights at $200,000 a seat. To date, over 340 people have signed up for flights to the edge of space.

There has been a steady progression of testing of the vehicles over the last several months. In mid-July, for example, VSS Enterprise flew its first captive-carry flight with crew on board.

The WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo launch system is under development by Scaled Composites LLC, an aerospace and specialty composites company in Mojave.

Virgin Galactic said in a statement that the test flight’s two main goals “were to carry out a clean release of the spaceship from its mothership and for the pilots to free fly and glide back and land at Mojave Air and Space Port in California.”

Other detailed objectives of the flight were successfully completed, including:

  • Verification that all systems worked prior and following the release of SpaceShipTwo from WhiteKnightTwo.
  • Initial evaluation of handling and stall characteristics.
  • Qualitative evaluation of stability and control of SpaceShipTwo against predictions from design and simulation work.
  • Verification of performance by evaluating the lift-to-drag ratio of the spaceship during glide flight.
  • Practice of a landing approach at altitude and finally descent and landing.

Meanwhile, work is ongoing in readying Spaceport America, the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport, now under construction in New Mexico.

Spaceport America’s runway will be dedicated Oct. 22 to mark the completion of the approximately 3 kilometer-long takeoff and landing strip from which the WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo launch system will operate.

The launch facility is under construction near Truth or Consequences, N.M., and is expected to become fully operational in 2011.

Officials at Spaceport America have been working closely with leading aerospace firms such as Virgin Galactic, Armadillo Aerospace, Lockheed Martin, Moog-FTS and UP Aerospace to develop commercial spaceflight at the new facility.

Leonard David has been reporting on space activities for nearly 50 years. He is the 2010 winner of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award and recently co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin the book “Mission to Mars — My Vision for Space...