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SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity glides through its first free-flying flight. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

Virgin Galactic’s second SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, dubbed VSS Unity, successfully glided through its first free-flying test run today. The flight comes more than two years after the first SpaceShipTwo broke up during a rocket-powered test.

The hybrid rocket engine wasn’t switched on for today’s trial in the skies above California’s Mojave Desert. Instead, VSS Unity was set loose by its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane at a height of tens of thousands of feet, and winged its way back to the Mojave Air and Space Port.

Test pilot Mark “Forger” Stucky and Virgin Galactic’s chief pilot, Dave Mackay, were at the controls in Unity’s cockpit. Mike Masucci and Todd Ericson piloted WhiteKnightTwo, with Dustin Mosher as flight engineer. Virgin Galactic reported that the crew was “safe and sound” after “a successful first glide test flight.”

Parabolic Arc’s Douglas Messier reported that Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson was on hand to watch the flight.

“It’s a happy day to be here,” Branson said in a video captured by Messier before WhiteKnightTwo took off. “We’ve got an exciting year ahead, and this is just the start of it.”

The flight, which tested the craft’s fundamental performance and handling qualities, represents a milestone on the road to suborbital space trips. Virgin Galactic had already conducted four captive-carry aerodynamic tests, but during those flights, VSS Unity stayed firmly attached to WhiteKnightTwo.

After further rounds of glide flights, Virgin Galactic is due to move on to rocket-powered flights that gradually push the envelope, leading up to test runs that cross the boundary of outer space (50 miles, according to U.S. Air Force standards; 62 miles, according to international standards).

It was during a powered test flght in October 2014 that the first SpaceShipTwo, known as VSS Enterprise, broke up. Co-pilot Mike Alsbury was killed in the disaster, and pilot Pete Siebold suffered serious injuries. A federal investigation attributed the failure to pilot error as well as a number of shortcomings in design and training. Virgin Galactic says those shortcomings have been addressed.

About 700 would-be space passengers have already put down as much as $250,000 each to reserve seats on VSS Unity. The shift to commercial operations at New Mexico’s Spaceport America depends on how the test program goes, but Branson has said he intends to be on the first passenger flight.

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