British billionaire Richard Branson's dream of space travel that thousands of people can afford took a leap toward reality with the maiden flight of the world's first commercial spacecraft over California's Mojave Desert.
Branson's company Virgin Galactic announced Monday that the VSS Enterprise had successfully completed what it called a captive carry flight attached to a carrier plane.
The spacecraft's developer called it a "momentous day."
"The captive carry flight signifies the start of what we believe will be extremely exciting and successful spaceship flight test program," said Burt Rutan, founder of Scaled Composites, which built the spacecraft.
The VSS Enterprise remained attached to its carrier aircraft for the duration of the 2-hour, 54-minute flight, reaching an altitude of 45,000 feet, according to a statement from Virgin.
Eventually, the 60-foot long rocket plane will be taken 60,000 feet above the Earth by its carrier and fire rockets to propel itself into space.
The test-flight program is expected to continue through 2011, going first to a free glide and then to a powered flight before commercial flights begin.
"Seeing the finished spaceship in December was a major day for us but watching VSS Enterprise fly for the first time really brings home what beautiful, ground-breaking vehicles Burt and his team have developed for us," Branson said.
"Today was another major step along that road and a testament to U.S. engineering and innovation," he said.
Virgin Galactic has envisioned one flight a week, with six tourists aboard. Each will pay $200,000 for the ride and train for at least three days before going. About 80,000 people have placed their names on the waiting list for seats.
"What we want to be able to do is bring space travel down to a price range where hundreds of thousands of people would be able to experience space, and they never dreamed that [they] could," Branson said last year.
He has said he hopes the technology will lead to a new form of Earth travel, jetting people across oceans and continents faster through suborbital routes.
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