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SpaceShipTwo and White Knight Two
SpaceShipTwo is nestled between the two fuselages of its White Knight Two carrier airplane before the glide test. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane glided through its third free-flying test run today, and although it hasn’t yet lit up its engine, there was a high-powered crowd to fuel the excitement at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port.

The company’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, was in attendance, as was his son, Sam Branson. Brian Cox, the British physicist and TV host, was there as well.

Cox is working on a documentary for the BBC and the Smithsonian Channel titled “The Quest for Space,” and today’s test is likely to provide grist for the show. For what it’s worth, Cox is scheduled to pay a visit to Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., next week.

Virgin Galactic’s unpowered glide tests begin with a twin-fuselage mothership, White Knight Two, taking off with SpaceShipTwo attached underneath. When the White Knight reaches the right altitude, SpaceShipTwo is released to glide down to a landing at Mojave.

Today, pilots Dave Mackay and C.J. Sturckow were in the cockpit of SpaceShipTwo, also known as VSS Unity. (The first SpaceShipTwo, VSS Enterprise, broke up in a fatal accident in October 2014.) This flight marked the first SpaceShipTwo tour of duty for Sturckow, a veteran of four space shuttle missions.

Todd Erickson and Kelly Latimer were the pilots for the White Knight Two mothership, with Dustin Mosher serving as flight engineer.

The data from VSS Unity’s glide flights will be used to fine-tune the plane’s control systems and aerodynamics, in preparation for the rocket-powered flights that are expected to begin this year.

Eventually, the scene will shift from Mojave to Spaceport America in New Mexico, where paying passengers will get on board for their suborbital space tours. About 700 people have made reservations, paying as much as $250,000 for their ticket.

The timetable for commercial flights is dependent on how well the test program goes, and based on the smiles on Branson’s face, it looks as if the program is going pretty well. Check out the tweets from the folks who were there:

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