Columnist Leonard David

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Passes Key Flight Test

Full Size Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo
SpaceShipTwo undertook its 23rd glide flight on Dec. 19 in the pre-powered portion of its incremental test flight program. This was a significant flight as it was the first with rocket motor components installed, including tanks. It was also the first flight with thermal protection applied to the spaceship's leading edges. (Image credit: Luke Colby/Virgin Galactic)

The Virgin Galactic suborbital SpaceShipTwo has completed a key flight test at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California — an on-the-fly appraisal that serves as an important precursor to upcoming hot-engine flights using its hybrid rocket motor.

Suborbital SpaceShipTwo makes safe landing after Dec. 19 drop test. (Image credit: Bill Deaver)

After a high-altitude release from the WhiteKnightTwo mothership, SpaceShipTwo  was piloted to a smooth runway touchdown Wednesday (Dec. 19), scoring a successful test drop and checking off a number of milestones.

"Today was a big step closer to first powered flight," said George Whitesides, CEO and president of Virgin Galactic, a spaceliner firm backed by British entrepreneur Richard Branson.

"We had a variety of systems newly installed on the vehicle," Whitesides told "The most important were the components of the rocket system, including all the flight-ready tanks and valves. But we also flew with flight-ready thermal protection materials on the leading edges of the vehicle for the first time," he said.

More work to do

Skywatchers view Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's glide to tarmac touchdown at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. (Image credit: Bill Deaver)

Whitesides said that the flight team and Virgin Galactic were pleased to see that the vehicle, under the steady hand of pilot Mark Stucky, retained its excellent flight characteristics. 

"We still have a bit more work to do before we will be ready to ignite the rocket, including two more glide flights," Whitesides said. "2013 will be a big year," he said.

According to veteran Mojave Air and Space Port tarmac watcher Bill Deaver, SpaceShipTwo landed just before 8 a.m. PST under "crystal clear Mojave dawn skies," he told "It looked like they tried a new, long, high key pattern of one circuit around the field rather than the former, shorter circuit on landing."

The action and reaction end of SpaceShipTwo — its hybrid rocket motor — is still to be tested in-flight. (Image credit: Bill Deaver)

SpaceShipTwo is a hybrid motor-powered vehicle designed to fly six passengers and two pilots to the edge of space, without making a full orbit of Earth. Commercial operations of the craft will eventually be carried out at New Mexico's Spaceport America.

The price per seat for a SpaceShipTwo space traveler is $200,000 — so there's still time to start saving your money!

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for since 1999.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.