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Virgin spacecraft makes maiden voyage (photos)

As Virgin Galactic readies its commercial spaceflight program, its first commercial aircraft, the VSS Enterprise, undergoes testing at the Mojave Air and Spaceport in California.

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James Martin

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1 of 6 Mark Greenberg

VSS Enterprise takeoff

Inching ever closer to taking customers on commercial spaceflights, Virgin Galactic's VSS Enterprise took off on its first "captive carry" test flight at 7:05 a.m. Monday from the Mojave Air and Spaceport in Mojave, Calif.
The spacecraft, which was unveiled on December 7, 2009, took the journey while remaining attached to its mothership, a carrier aircraft called VMS Eve.
When commercial flights begin, the vehicle will cruise to an altitude of 50,000 feet, where the VSS Enterprise, powered by a hybrid rocket motor, will detach from the mothership and launch passengers into suborbital space.
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2 of 6 Mark Greenberg

VSS Enterprise takeoff

Here, the VSS Enterprise takes off from the Mojave Spaceport at 7:05 a.m. Monday.

Once Virgin Galactic's public program is up and running, flights will take off from Spaceport America in southern New Mexico. Construction has already begun to provide Spaceport America with a new runway designed to accommodate horizontal launch space and air operations. Expected to be completed by late summer 2010, the 10,000-foot-long by 200-foot-wide concrete runway is designed for day-to-day space tourism activities like those planned by Virgin Galactic, as well as being able to accommodate returning launch vehicles and other space launch and training vehicles.

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3 of 6 Mark Greenberg

VSS Enterprise over Mojave

During Monday's test flight, which lasted 2 hours and 54 minutes, the VSS Enterprise reached altitudes of 45,000 feet.
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4 of 6 Mark Greenberg

VSS closeup

The commercial space vehicle, once cleared for use, will carry six fare-paying passengers and two pilots on suborbital space flights.
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5 of 6 Mark Greenberg

VSS Enterprise over Mojave

Virgin Galactic says it has already collected around $45 million in deposits from more than 330 passengers wishing to experience spaceflight. According to the booking Web site, tickets cost $200,000 and deposits start from $20,000.
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6 of 6 Mark Greenberg

VSS Enterprise in flight

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic said in a statement, "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, groundbreaking vehicles Burt and his team have developed for us," referring to Burt Rutan, whose company Scaled Composites built the spacecraft. "It comes as no surprise that the flight went so well," Branson said. "The Scaled team is uniquely qualified to bring this important and incredible dream to reality. Today was another major step along that road and a testament to U.S. engineering and innovation."

The VSS Enterprise test flights will continue though 2010 and 2011, progressing from captive carry to independent glide and then powered flight, prior to the start of commercial operations, which are currently planned for late 2011 or 2012.

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