Virgin Galactic spaceship makes first glide flight

Virgin Galactic’s second SpaceShipTwo performed its first free flight, a glide test that begins the next phase in testing of the commercial suborbital spaceplane. SpaceShipTwo, named VSS Unity, and its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California at about 9:50 a.m. EST (1450 GMT). The spaceplane separated from WhiteKnightTwo at 10:40 a.m. EST (1540 GMT), gliding back to a runway landing in Mojave 10 minutes later, according to updates provided by the company. The glide flight, which Virgin Galactic declared a success, begins the next phase in testing of the long-delayed suborbital vehicle that is ultimately designed to carry space tourists and research payloads to an altitude of about 62 miles (100 kilometers), exposing them to several minutes of microgravity.

There’s 10 glide flights’ worth of targets. We could do those in 8 flights, or might take 15, but we’re not going into the next phase before we clear those.

Mike Moses, Virgin Galactic President

Virgin Galactic had planned to carry out the glide flight Nov. 1, but high winds led flight controllers to keep SpaceShipTwo attached to WhiteKnightTwo, turning the mission into the second “captive carry” test flight of the vehicle, after one in September. A second attempt, Nov. 3, was aborted because of an unspecified technical issue discovered prior to the planned release. The vehicles took to the air again Nov. 30 on another captive carry flight. “As part of our ground & flight testing, we made a few tweaks to the vehicle,” Virgin Galactic said in a tweet, which were tested on that flight. The company did not disclose the nature of the changes.