This story was updated Monday at 10:22 a.m. EDT.
A carrier aircraft designed to be the first stage of a commercial spaceline system made its maiden test flight today at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
Designed by Scaled Composites, the huge and unique WhiteKnightTwo mothership rolled down the runway and muscled itself into the air using four Pratt and Whitney PW308A turbofan engines. The WhiteKnightTwo flew for about an hour, departing the runway at roughly 8:17 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, safely touching down at the Mojave Air and Space Port at approximately 9:17 a.m. PST.
"It's a big day," said Stuart Witt, general manager of Mojave Air and Space Port. "I think it's a real reflective time. When everybody's looking for a bailout, there are still people that are doing something for a much larger reason," he told SPACE.com.
After a number of shakeout flights, the WhiteKnightTwo is to be outfitted with the now-under-construction SpaceShipTwo. That rocket plane is also being built by Scaled Composites of Mojave, California. Ultimately WhiteKnightTwo is to carry the space plane to altitude, where it will then detach and head for suborbital space flights.
The WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo combo is to serve as the backbone of Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic suborbital spaceline operations.
Virgin Galactic has on order five SpaceShipTwo rocket planes and two of the carrier craft, with options on more.
Given a progressive roster of test evaluations at the Mojave Air and Space Port, the spaceline system is to be commercially operated at the now-under-construction Spaceport America in New Mexico. The price tag per seat on the two pilot/six passenger suborbital SpaceShipTwo is $200,000.
The hour-long test flight of WhiteKnightTwo made use of a minimum flight test crew.
"And here we are on a Sunday morning...in a place out here in the middle of nowhere and really neat stuff is happening. It just looked beautiful," Witt said. "What brings people to this desolate landscape on a Sunday morning in December is more about what forced them here. Innovation by the private sector is a void being filled because NASA deserted 90 percent of the sandbox and left it open for us to fill."
A witness to the flight was Dick Rutan who in December 1986 piloted the Voyager aircraft around the world non-stop with the assistance of Jeana Yeager. He is brother of Burt Rutan, Chief Technology Officer and Chairman Emeritus of Scaled Composites.
"It all went well...all the big things worked well," Rutan told SPACE.com. "Overall, 99 percent on target and everybody is really happy. You get an airplane that's this weird and get it up and get it down...and it's safe on deck."
The aircraft's first flight means that Virgin Galactic expects 2009 to be an exciting period of time, explained Will Whitehorn, President of Virgin Galactic.
"White KnightTwo is the world's largest all carbon composite aviation vehicle," Whitehorn told SPACE.com. "And of course she really is also a first stage space launch system capable of carrying enormous weight to the edge of the atmosphere, training astronauts with her zero to six G flying capability and being a scientific payload platform at the same time."
"My congratulations to a great team that worked very hard to get our first flight flown before our Christmas break. We had a fun day at Mojave and now know we have a solid performer that flies beautifully and will soon be moving on to its tasks of launching Spaceships," added Burt Rutan.
Commercial space program
In 2004, a smaller WhiteKnight carrier plane cradled SpaceShipOne - a launch system that made possible the first non-governmental piloted rocket ship to fly to the edge of space. Back-to-back flights of SpaceShipOne that year earned the Scaled Composites team, $10 million in Ansari X Prize money.
On Dec. 15, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) announced that Spaceport America has received its Record of Decision and license for vertical and horizontal launch operations from the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation.
In related news, a few days later, the NMSA announced the selection of Gerald Martin Construction Management of Albuquerque, New Mexico, to oversee the construction of Spaceport America.
The governmental approvals and the selection of the construction firm are the next steps along the road to a fully operational commercial spaceport, noted NMSA Executive Director Steven Landeene. "We are on track to begin construction in the first quarter of 2009, and have our facility completed as quickly as possible," Landeene said in a press statement.
The NMSA is expected to have a signed lease agreement with Virgin Galactic later this month.
The NMSA currently projects vertical launch activity at Spaceport America to increase in 2009 and construction to also begin next year on the terminal and hangar facility to be utilized for Virgin Galactic operations. Those structures would be completed by late 2010.
- Video - Space Tourism: Virgin Galactic Way - Part 1, Part 2
- Video - SpaceShipTwo Revealed
- Images - SpaceShipTwo Mothership Unveiled
Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than four decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.