Virgin Galactic's Private Spaceship Makes First Crewed Flight

A private suborbital spaceship built for the space tourism firm Virgin Galactic made its first flight with a crew onboard Thursday as it soared over California's Mojave Desert beneath its enormous mothership.

The commercial spaceliner -- called VSS Enterprise, one of the company's fleet of SpaceShipTwo spacecraft -- did not try to reach space in the test flight. Instead, it stayed firmly attached to its WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve mothership.

The two crewmembers riding onboard VSS Enterprise evaluated all of the spacecraft's systems and functions during the 6-hour, 12-minute flight, Virgin Galactic officials said in a statement. In addition, automated sensors and ground crews conducted thorough vehicle systems tests. [Photos from the SpaceShipTwo test flight.]

"Objectives achieved," Virgin Galactic officials said in a statement on the company's website. "Congratulations to the whole team!"

Three other crewmembers flew aboard the Eve mothership, which is designed to carry SpaceShipTwo to an altitude above 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) before the spacecraft drops and fires its hybrid rocket motor to launch into suborbital space.

Virgin Galactic was founded by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson. The SpaceShipTwo spacecraft and their WhiteKnightTwo motherships are built for Virgin Galactic by Mojave, Calif.-based Scaled Composites, which was founded by veteran aerospace designer Burt Rutan.

SpaceShipTwo is built to carry eight people (six passengers and two pilots) on suborbital flights that would reach outer space for a few minutes, though would not go high enough to enter Earth orbit.

The flights will provide a weightless experience and a view of the blackness of space and glowing Earth below. Tickets cost $200,000 per person.

Rutan and Scaled Composites also built SpaceShipTwo's predecessor, the smaller suborbital craft SpaceShipOne financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, which won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for reusable, manned suborbital spacecraft in 2004.

Thursday's captive flight test was the 33rd voyage of the mothership VMS Eve, one of company's the WhiteKnightTwo craft. It was the third captive-carry flight for VSS Enterprise. The first of these joint flights occurred earlier this year in March.

The mothership crew consisted of Mark Stucky, Peter Kalogiannis and Brian Maisler, while Peter Siebold and Michael Alsbury rode aboard VSS Enterprise.

The VSS Enterprise is the first in a planned fleet of suborbital SpaceShipTwo spacecraft for Virgin Galactic. While the first test flights are being flown from Mojave, Calif., Virgin Galactic is building a terminal for space tourism flights at Spaceport America in New Mexico as well.

The VSS Enterprise named after the fictional starship of the same name from the science fiction television franchise "Star Trek."

Copyright © 2010 All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.