Space tourism got a step closer to becoming a reality this month. Virgin Galactic, the arm of Virgin Group that is developing the world's first commercial manned space flight system and tourism business, announced it has successfully completed the first piloted free flight of its Space Ship Two, also known as the VSS Enterprise. Piloted by Pete Siebold and Mike Alsbury, the ship was released from its mothership, the White Knight Two, at a height of 45,000 feet. The White Knight Two is used to lift the Enterprise into position for what would normally be an air launch of the rocket-powered spacecraft. In this case, however, the VSS Enterprise just glided to a landing at Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

"This was one of the most exciting days in the whole history of Virgin," said Sir Richard Branson. "For the first time since we seriously began the project in 2004, I watched the world's first manned commercial spaceship landing on the runway at Mojave Air and Space Port and it was a great moment. Now, the sky is no longer the limit and we will begin the process of pushing beyond to the final frontier of space itself over the next year."

The successful test will allow Virgin Galactic to move forward with its ambitious space tourism project. A two-mile-long "spaceway" was recently dedicated in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, part of a commercial spaceport dubbed "Spaceport America," that Virgin expects to be fully operational in 2011.

Now, it seems, the only question that remains is how much will people pay to go up into space? Apparently plenty -- Virgin says it has already collected 370 customer deposits totaling $50 million.


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