The private spaceflight company Virgin Galactic has picked its first commercial astronaut pilot to help fly a passenger-carrying space plane to the edge of space and back.
The company has tapped U.S. Air Force pilot Keith Colmer as its newest pilot for SpaceShipTwo, a private spaceliner designed to launch on commercial flights into suborbital space. These voyages will zip up to about 62 miles (100 kilometers), considered the boundary of space, without making a full orbit around the Earth.
Colmer joins chief pilot David Mackay on Virgin Galactic's flight team, company officials said in an Oct. 26 statement.
While MacKay joined the program as a pilot from Virgin Galactic's sister company Virgin Atlantic, Colmer is the first Virgin Galactic pilot to be selected by competition. He beat out more than 500 applicants for the job.
"Keith brings the kind of tremendous multi-dimensional talent and skill set that we are looking for in our astronaut pilots," Virgin Galactic president and CEO George Whitesides said in a statement. "But equally important to us are his impeccable character and his outstanding record of high caliber performance in highly demanding environments. He sets the bar very high for others to come." [Rise of SpaceShipTwo: The Test Flights Photos]
Colmer has logged over 5,000 hours in over 90 different types of aircraft, including two combat tours to Iraq. He has 12 years of test flight experience under his belt.
"I am extremely honored to have been the first astronaut pilot selected through competition to join the team," Colmer said. "Virgin Galactic is truly revolutionizing the way we go to space, and I am looking forward to being a part of that."
Colmer, whose aviator call sign is "Coma," will now get to work on flight training and testing with the vehicle's builder, Scaled Composites, in Mojave, Calif. The company plans the first powered test flight of the vehicle in 2013.
"This team in Mojave is second to none," Mackay said of Scaled Composite's test pilots. “Keith and I are indeed fortunate to have their expertise and body of work to build on as we enter the final phases of the test program and prepare to open space to all."
SpaceShipTwo is based on its predecessor SpaceShipOne, which won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 for being the first private vehicle to fly to space and back twice in two weeks.
The new fleet of larger space planes will eventually carry paying passengers from its home base at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico.
Get the Space.com Newsletter
Breaking space news, the latest updates on rocket launches, skywatching events and more!
Clara Moskowitz is a science and space writer who joined the Space.com team in 2008 and served as Assistant Managing Editor from 2011 to 2013. Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She covers everything from astronomy to human spaceflight and once aced a NASTAR suborbital spaceflight training program for space missions. Clara is currently Associate Editor of Scientific American. To see her latest project is, follow Clara on Twitter.