GOLDEN, Colo. — Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo soared through its longest flight yet April 22 during a drop test over California’s Mojave Desert.

The suborbital spacecraft maneuvered through the skies over the Mojave Air and Space Port during the milestone test. The Mojave-based aerospace company Scaled Composites is overseeing construction and flight testing of SpaceShipTwo and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane for Virgin Galactic.

According to Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipTwo flight test log, the April 22 piloted glide test marks the fifth release of the space plane at high altitude from the WhiteKnightTwo mothership.

“Looks like another good day for the Scaled team as we move through the test program,” said George Whitesides, president and chief executive officer of Virgin Galactic.

Whitesides said the flight was the longest SpaceShipTwo glide flight to date.

Test pilot Peter Siebold and co-pilot Doug Shane, who is the president of Scaled Composites, flew SpaceShipTwo during the test, which lasted 14 minutes and 31 seconds, said Virgin Galactic spokeswoman Christine Choi.

The glide tests typically have a checklist of items that range from evaluating stability and control of SpaceShipTwo to maintaining pilot proficiency.

The first SpaceShipTwo vehicle, named the VSS Enterprise, and its mothership, VMS Eve, are both being developed by Scaled Composites for British billionaire Richard Branson, who founded the Virgin Galactic spaceline.

SpaceShipTwo spacecraft are designed to carry six passengers and two pilots to the edge of space and back. The flights are expected to offer a spectacular view of the Earth and several minutes of weightlessness, Virgin Galactic officials have said. Tickets for the flights cost $200,000 per seat.


Test flight successes

SpaceShipTwo has been put through an ever-expanding set of flight objectives, including its maiden free-flight Oct. 10, a second glide test Oct. 28, a third drop test Nov. 17 and a fourth glide test Jan. 13.

Shortly after tarmac touchdown, a debriefing was held involving personnel involved in the glide flight.

More tests of the SpaceShipTwo are expected as part of a dedicated campaign to ready the craft for commercial operations. Major milestones still to come are tests involving short, medium and long blasts from the spacecraft’s hybrid rocket motor.

In March, a sixth hot-fire test of a full-scale flight design rocket motor was performed using ground test facilities. All objectives were completed, such as evaluating igniter performance, nozzle ablation and monitoring the stability of the burn.


Spaceport America construction

Meanwhile, construction of New Mexico’s Spaceport America — billed as the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport — is nearing completion. This site will support Virgin Galactic’s commercial space business of flying passengers into space.

Once fully operational, Spaceport America will handle both vertical and horizontal launch vehicles.

In February, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority Board of Directors hired Christine Anderson as the spaceport’s executive director. Anderson was the founding director of the Space Vehicles Directorate at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.

Virgin Galactic’s VSS Enterprise test flight program is slated to continue through 2011, prior to commercial operations, which will be based at Spaceport America.

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...