By Daily Mail Reporter
Onwards and upwards: SpaceShipTwo during its inaugural test flight over the California desert yesterday. It is attached to the middle of its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, the world's first commercial passenger spaceship, made its inaugural test flight over the California desert yesterday.
The flight marked the start of a test programme that will progress to flights as a glider and then under rocket power.
Throughout the two hour, 54 minute test, the space tourism rocket remained slung beneath the middle of the wing of its 'mothership' WhiteKnightTwo, a twin-fuselage carrier aircraft.
The pair achieved an altitude of 45,000ft before returning to the Mojave Air and Space Port, which is 70 miles north of Los Angeles.
'This is a momentous day,' designer Burt Rutan said.
*** Scroll down to see video of flight ***
Virgin Galactic, an offshoot of Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group, has collected about £30million in deposits and fares from more than 330 aspiring amateur astronauts, each of whom will be charged £133,000 to experience a few minutes of suborbital spaceflight
By suborbital means its trajectory will not complete a full orbit of Earth.
Test flights are scheduled to continue through 2011, with commercial operations set to begin in 2012.
The rocket and mothership are the second generation of the Burt Rutan-designed system that sent the first privately developed, manned rocket into space in 2004.
SpaceShipOne went on that year to make two more suborbital flights, winning the £6.7million prize Ansari X Prize. It is now in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.
Throughout the two hour 54 minute test it remained attacked to WhiteKnightTwo. In future, it will be the job of the mothership to carry it to an altitude of 50,000ft before releasing it
High flier: The craft achieved an altitude of 45,000ft before returning to the Mojave Air and Space Port in California
Sir Richard is in a deal with the Rutan-founded Scaled Composites of Mojave, California, to develop passenger-carrying spacecraft and launchers.
SpaceShipTwo has been dubbed Virgin Spaceship Enterprise and the four-engine carrier jet is called Virgin Mothership Eve, after Sir Richard's mother.
'Seeing the finished spaceship in December was a major day for us but watching VSS Enterprise fly for the first time really brings home what beautiful, groundbreaking vehicles Burt and his team have developed for us,' said Sir Richard.
Virgin Galactic said the flight test program will run through 2011 before passenger travel is scheduled to begin in 2012.
SpaceShipTwo will be carried to an altitude of about 50,000ft and then released by the mothership.
Powered by a single rocket motor, the spaceship will be flown by a crew of two and carry six passengers on a Mach 3 thrill ride through the edge of the atmosphere for a brief zero-gravity experience and views of the Earth far below before gliding to a landing.
Coming in to land: Virgin Galactic said the flight test programme will run through 2011 before commercial operations are scheduled to begin in 2012
Such suborbital flights are similar to the 1961 flights of Mercury astronauts Alan Shepard and Virgil Grissom - up into space and then back down without circling the Earth.
But by launching SpaceShipTwo from a high-flying carrier aircraft, there's no need for the massive rockets that propelled the Mercury capsules.
Motherships have been used for decades by Nasa and the military for 'captive-carry' tests and launches of such craft as the X-15 rocket planes.
The novel part of Rutan's design is his 'carefree re-entry' system.
SpaceShipTwo has tailbooms extending rearward from its wings. In space, the booms pivot upward to a 65-degree angle. The position causes drag and slows the descent in the upper atmosphere before the booms pivot back to horizontal.
Commercial development has been slower than expected.
When Virgin Group licensed the technology from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who funded about £17million for SpaceShipOne, Sir Richard envisioned operating flights by 2007.
Mass appeal? An artist's conception of SpaceShipTwo during a sub-orbital flight (left) and the spaceship as it is released from its mothership White Knight Two (right)
Inside deal: An interior view of SpaceShipTwo's cabin while it was under construction
A major setback was an explosion during a 2007 ground test involving the flow of a rocket oxidizer.
Three workers were killed and three others suffered serious injuries.
Approximately 600 people are now employed on activities relating to the Virgin Galactic project.
This figure is estimated to rise to over 1,100 jobs during the peak of the construction phase at the space port and when the commercial space vehicles begin their flights.
Speaking in December, Sir Richard said: 'The team has created not only a world first but also a work of art.
'It's incredible to think only 450 people have ever been into space; that's including all the Russians, all the Chinese and all the Americans put together.'
In honour of a long tradition of using the word Enterprise in the naming of Royal Navy, U.S. Navy, Nasa vehicles and even science fiction spacecraft, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson in December christened SS2 with the name Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Enterprise.
December launch: California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger with Sir Richard Branson and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, break wines bottles at the christening ceremony of SpaceShipTwo (left). Sir Richard poses with aircraft designer Burt Rutan (right)