New SpaceShipTwo Flies Free for the First Time
Dozens more test flights will follow for the Virgin Galactic spaceplane "Unity" before paying passengers are aboard.
Virgin Galactic's new six-passenger SpaceShipTwo made its first glide test over Mojave, California on Saturday.
The ship is the second in a series of commercial spaceships built for Richard Branson's space company, which is selling tickets to ride for $250,000.
The first ship, manufactured and tested by contractor Northrop Grumman's Scaled Composites, was destroyed during a fatal test flight on Oct. 31, 2014.
The new ship, named Unity and built by Virgin's The SpaceShip Company, previously made four flights attached to its carrier aircraft.
On Saturday, SpaceShipTwo and its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, took off at 6:49 a.m. from California's Mojave Air and Space Port, located in the Mojave Desert about 200 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
"We've got an exciting year ahead and this is just the start of it," Branson told a small group braving the 28-degree Fahrenheit temperature to watch the spaceship fly.
"I'm afraid you're going to see a lot of me these next few months," Branson said in a video from the spaceport's runway posted by Douglas Messier at ParabolicArc.com.
With Virgin Galactic pilots Mark Stucky and David Mackay at the helm, Unity separated from WhiteKnightTwo at an altitude of just over 50,000 feet, said Virgin Galactic President Mike Moses.
"She looked beautiful," Moses said in a telephone interview after the flight.
Unity flew at Mach 0.6 for an initial check of handling characteristics and vibration tests, then landed on the spaceport runway.
"Next time we'll fly faster," Moses said, adding that the 15-minute flight flight marked a major milestone for the program.
"Flying captive is great, but there is nothing like a free flight when it's a true airplane," Moses said. "We got a glider today, but it's well on its way to becoming a spaceship."