Nearly a decade after Richard Branson founded the space tourism wing of his Virgin empire and more than three years after he unveiled the ship that will get humans into the suborbital vacation business, SpaceShipTwo has proven itself ready for liftoff. On Monday morning Virgin Galactic announced that it had successfully conducted the first rocket-assisted flight test for its next-generation space vessel, at 55,000 feet above California's Mojave desert. A cargo plane called the White Knight Two, also developed by aerospace engineer Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites, flew SS2 to approximately 47,000 feet before releasing it, as seen in the video below:
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The hour-long test represents the biggest development in Branson's attempt to commercialize space travel since he unveiled SpaceShipTwo in December 2009. Today's flight puts the company on track to test the craft's full "flight envelope" — its maximum speed and load — before the year's end. Which means some of those 500 space tourists who have already signed up could see the view from up there by late this year or sometime in 2014.
What will the SpaceShipTwo do, exactly? If all goes well, it will carry six human beings on a "sub-orbital" trip to outer space, meaning that the craft falls back to the Earth's surface before making a complete orbit. But still: That's about 20 minutes of space travel at about $200,000 for a round trip, and that's good enough for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. According to a press release on Virgin Galactic's website, "the vehicles will allow an out-of-the-seat, zero-gravity experience with astounding views of the planet from the black sky of space for tourist astronauts and a unique microgravity platform for researchers." The innovation here has less to do with zero-gravity experiences — which can be replicated by elliptical flight patterns — than with access to (relatively) affordable and safe space travel, which lays the groundwork for interplanetary travel. After all, nobody starts a space flight company simply for the cool views alone — and Richard Branson isn't the only one in on the game.