Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo makes history

The spaceplane broke the sound barrier in an early morning flight over Mojave on Monday.
It was another history-making day in the sky over Kern County.

Virgin Galactic's first commercial spaceplane broke the sound barrier Monday during its first powered test flight over Mojave.

It was a pivotal achievement for Virgin and Mojave-based Scaled Composites in their bid to send SpaceShipTwo into space later this year.

After 25 successful glide flights, it was time to marry the systems, the plane and its propulsion system, a hybrid rocket motor that will one day propel tourists into space.

Nestled in the cradle of her mother ship, WhiteKnightTwo, Virgin Galactic's six-passenger space plane was carried from Mojave Spaceport to an altitude of 47,000 feet.

SpaceShipTwo was released and pilot Mark Stucky lit the rocket motor, hurtling the vehicle through the sound barrier to Mach .2 in just 16 seconds, in the upper reaches of the stratosphere.

An elated Sir Richard Branson called it a historic day for Virgin Galactic and aspiring citizen astronauts.

"The first commercial spaceline to break the sound barrier on its first flight. It just couldn't have gone more smoothly. The pilots were talking about saying, just screw everybody we're going into to space, ha, ha, ha, but they didn't," said Branson, owner of Virgin Galactic.

The man whose company designed and built SpaceShipTwo says Monday's flight represented the biggest risk to the program.

"To start subsonic, got to transonic, to supersonic. Not much happens when you go faster than that, but the big question an aerodynamist has is how it will perform transonic," said Burt Rutan, founder of Scaled Composites.

The wife of one of Scaled's aerodynamists, Jim Tighe was in the crowd watching.

"He's been working on this for nine years. We've got a lot invested in this plane," said Brook Tighe.

For Spaceport General Manager Stu Witt, the investment made in Mojave by Sir Richard Branson and other risk takers in the civilian space race, is paying big dividends.

"When you take guys like Richard Branson and Burt Rutan at Scaled and give them the freedom to build, anything can happen," said Witt.

But, it doesn't happen overnight. This flight was seven years in the making.

"A lot of agonies in those seven years, but today we realized that commercial space travel is a reality and people will get to go to space and marvel at this beautiful world we live on," said Branson.

More test flights are ahead in the coming months with a suborbital flight expected well before year's end.
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