Virgin Galactic, the space-tourism branch of the conglomerate owned by Richard Branson, completed an important spaceship test Monday – its SpaceShipTwo broke the speed of sound - as it attempts to fly tourists to suborbital space later this year.
It was the first rocket-powered test of the vehicle, which can carry six passengers and two pilots. Branson called the flight, which took off from the Mojave, Calif. Air and Space Port, the company's "single most important flight test to date."
The company plans on flying tourists out of New Mexico's Spaceport America sometime later this year and called Monday's test the beginning of "the final phase of vehicle testing prior to commercial service."
Unlike most other space vehicles, SpaceShipTwo is not launched from the ground. Instead, it is docked to WhiteKnightTwo, a "carrier" aircraft. Once WhiteKnightTwo reaches 47,000 feet, SpaceShipTwo is released, and a rocket motor propels the space plane forward and upward. During Monday's test, the ship reached an altitude of 55,000 feet and a speed of Mach 1.2.
The company has already started a wait list for flights, with more than 530 people signing up. The cost for a flight is $200,000. The company is currently running a frequent flier program that will grant the person with the most airline miles aboard Virgin Airlines a free trip to space.