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Virgin Galactic spaceship makes first test flight


Richard Branson stands beside Virgin Mother Ship Eve, White Knight Two, at Wittman Field, site of the Experimental Aircraft Association Convention in Oshkosh, Wisconsin July 27, 2009. REUTERS/Allen Fredrickson
Richard Branson stands beside Virgin Mother Ship Eve, White Knight Two, at Wittman Field, site of the Experimental Aircraft Association Convention in Oshkosh, Wisconsin July 27, 2009. REUTERS/Allen Fredrickson

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - A suborbital spaceship owned by aspiring space tourism operator Virgin Galactic was airlifted into the skies over California's Mojave Desert on Monday for its debut test flight.

The sleek, six-passenger ship, called VSS Enterprise, remained attached to its carrier aircraft throughout the two-hour, 54-minute flight.

Virgin Galactic, an offshoot of billionaire Richard Branson's London-based Virgin Group, has collected about $45 million in deposits and fares from more than 330 aspiring amateur astronauts, each of whom will be charged $200,000 to experience a few minutes of suborbital spaceflight.

Enterprise was designed and built by Burt Rutan, founder of Mojave-based Scaled Composites, now a wholly owned subsidiary of Northrop Grumman.

"Watching VSS Enterprise fly for the first time really brings home what beautiful, ground-breaking vehicles Burt and his team have developed for us," Branson said in a statement.

Test flights are scheduled through 2011, with commercial operations targeted to begin in 2012.

Enterprise is closely modeled on a prototype suborbital spaceship named SpaceShipOne, which won a $10 million prize for the first privately financed manned spaceflights in 2004. It is now in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

(Editing by Tom Brown)

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