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SpaceShipTwo  (Source: Virgin Galactic)
Virgin Galactic takes an important step towards commercial space travel

After ground tests that lasted all of last week in preparation for a real launch, Virgin Galactic successfully made its maiden voyage with the WhiteKnightTwo double-wide plane.

The hour-long test mission went according to plan, as the craft took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.  Powered by four Pratt and Whitney PW308A turbofan engines, the odd looking WhiteKnightTwo powered down the runway and took off with no problems.  After takeoff at 8:17 a.m. PST, it safely landed at the Mojave Air and Space Port at 9:17 a.m. PST.

The craft reached an altitude of 16,000 feet -- 4,000 feet higher than what was originally scheduled by flight coordinators.

"The maiden flight went perfectly," Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn told Wired.com.  "With these aircraft, nothing is ever a foregone conclusion.  It's not like pulling another AirBus off the line and putting it into the air. This was a big moment.  I think it was a big milestone for the whole industry."

Virgin Galactic hopes WhiteKnightTwo will be able to one day carry SpaceShipTwo into suborbital flight for paying space tourists.  The company has five SpaceShipTwo and two WhiteKnightTwo aircraft on order ready for construction, depending on how the tests go.  

A ticket aboard the two pilots, six person craft will cost excited travelers $200,000.  The price of the suborbital flight is just a fraction of the $20 to 35 million price tag space tourists pay to travel to the International Space Station (ISS) for a week.

The SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize money after it became the first non-governmental piloted rocket ship to head into suborbital flight.





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