Last July Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo (SS2), the VSS Enterprise, made its first manned flight. For the duration of that flight, the spacecraft remained attached to its jet-powered carrier aircraft. But over the weekend VSS Enterprise left the protective grip of its mothership, VMS Eve, to successfully achieve its first manned free flight. Released from VMS Eve at an altitude of 45,000 ft (13,700 meters), VSS Enterprise glided for 11 minutes before landing at Mojave Air and Spaceport, successfully completing the two main goals of the flight.

Other objectives of the flight, which was piloted by Pete Siebold, assisted by Mike Alsbury as co-pilot, included; initial evaluation of handling and stall characteristics; qualitative evaluation of stability and control of SS2 against predictions from design and simulation work; verification of performance by evaluating the lift-to-drag ratio of the spaceship during glide flight; practice a landing approach at altitude and finally descend and land. All these objectives were also met.

After the flight, Siebold said, “The VSS Enterprise was a real joy to fly, especially when one considers the fact that the vehicle has been designed not only to be a Mach 3.5 spaceship capable of going into space but also one of the worlds highest altitude gliders.”

The Virgin Galactic team wasn’t taking any shortcuts in the preparations for the milestone flight. VMS Eve flew 40 times including four captive carry flights where the mothership and spaceship were attached for the duration. When the most recent solo flight of VMS Eve on October 5th demonstrated that all the systems required for the free flight by the VSS Enterprise were functioning correctly without any safety issues the team was ready for the next step of a free flight.

Virgin founder, Sir Richard Branson, was present at the milestone flight, saying, “This was one of the most exciting days in the whole history of Virgin. 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.”

Space looks like being the hot tourist destination in the next few years, with companies like Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures looking to give the paying public a ride into space and other companies like Galactic Suit Design and Orbital Technologies looking to give them a place to stay. However, such endeavors require a lot of money so there's still a question of if and when such dreams will become a reality. But Virgin Galactic is certainly looking like the team most likely saying it is now well on the way to becoming the world’s first commercial space line having already accrued 370 customer deposits totaling US$50 million.

Virgin Galactic’s future commercial operations will be based at Spaceport America in New Mexico where final preparations are taking place for a finished runway inauguration ceremony on Friday 22nd of October 2010.

Virgin Galactic has just released the following footage:

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