SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger, two-pilot suborbital spaceship owned by Virgin Galactic, an offshoot of Richard Branson's Virgin Group, fired up its rocket engine for the first time on Monday to successfully complete a 16-second, supersonic test flight Branson called "critical."
Under the watchful eyes of Branson, now-retired spaceship designer Burt Rutan, Virgin Galactic executives and workers at California's Mojave Air and Space Port, manufacturer Scaled Composites rolled out the spaceship and its custom carrier jet WhiteKnightTwo early Monday in preparation for a 7 a.m. takeoff.
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"It looked stunning," Branson later told Discovery News. "The pilots themselves were tempted to say, ‘Let's get farther. Let's just go straight into space today,' but it's good sense they decided not to do that and save it up for later on in the year."
WhiteKnightTwo soared into the clear blue sky and climbed to an altitude of 46,000 feet before the three-man crew, including Virgin lead pilot David Mackay, released the gleaming white spaceship for its debut powered flight.