Virgin Galactic rocket plane makes first gliding free flight

In a milestone on the road to commercial space flight, Virgin Galactic's futuristic suborbital rocket plane completed its first gliding flight test today, an 11-minute, 45,000-foot drop to a Mojave Desert runway.

William Harwood
Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.
William Harwood
3 min read

Virgin Galactic conducted the first piloted gliding flight of its commercial suborbital spaceship, the VSS Enterprise, today, releasing the winged rocket plane from the WhiteKnightTwo mothership at an altitude of 45,000 feet above the Mojave Desert.

With Scaled Composites pilot Pete Siebold and copilot Mike Alsbury at the controls, the futuristic twin-tail spacecraft glided to a touchdown at the Mojave Air and Space Port 11 minutes after its release from WhiteKnightTwo, also known as Eve. The craft was not equipped with a rocket motor for the glide test.

"It was a very important milestone," Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, told CBS News in a telephone interview. "It was one of the three big milestones still to go. To see it successfully drop and successfully glide back down to Earth and to see it perform so well was significant. An incredibly important day."

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, also known as the VSS Enterprise, glides home to its Mojave Desert runway Sunday in the rocket plane's first piloted free flight. Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg

Goals of the flight, Virgin Galactic said in a statement, were to characterize the release dynamics and to make an initial evaluation of handling and stall characteristics, to compare stability and control with predictions from computer models, to evaluate lift and drag, and to carry out a descent to landing.

"The VSS Enterprise was a real joy to fly, especially when one considers the fact that the vehicle has been designed not only to be a Mach 3.5 spaceship capable of going into space but also one of the world's highest altitude gliders," Siebold said in a Virgin Galactic press release.

Branson said he expects rocket-powered test flights to begin next year, followed by test flights into space "hopefully by the end of next year."

Virgin Galactic is building the rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo to carry six passengers and two pilots into space on suborbital up-and-down flights that will provide several minutes of weightlessness and a view of Earth previously enjoyed only by government-sponsored test pilots, astronauts, and cosmonauts.

"The next important thing will be the rocket tests with astronauts inside it," Branson said. "In about a week's time, we're going to be unveiling...the spaceport in New Mexico, and that's a key component of everything. And then, obviously, by the end of next year or the beginning of the following year, we'll be doing our first flights actually into space with people on it."

Designed by Scaled Composites and legendary aircraft builder Burt Rutan, SpaceShipTwo evolved from the smaller SpaceShipOne rocket plane that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 for becoming the first commercial manned rocket to reach an altitude of 100 kilometers, or 62 miles. Branson started Virgin Galactic to market flights on a commercial basis.

Tickets initially will cost some $200,000 per seat. Despite the steep price tag, Virgin has collected $50 million in deposits from 370 potential customers. Commercial operations will be based at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

After an extensive flight test program, "I'll be on the first official flight and very much looking forward to it," Branson told CBS News.

George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, said in the company statement that with the first drop test successfully concluded, "our challenge going forward will be to complete our experimental program, obtain our FAA license, and safely bring the system into service at Spaceport America."