The first fully-functional test flight of a ship built to take paying customers into space was a rousing success, and caught on video to boot.
Earlier this month, Virgin Galactic's plane, WhiteKnightTwo, took flight and held at 51,000 feet above sea level. Suspended bellow it was the prototype vessel intended to commercially launch people into space, SpaceShipTwo, containing test pilot Pete Siebold. The smaller ship was dropped, and after a brief burst from the thrusters, fell from the sky like a stone. Exactly according to plan.
The ship is outfitted with a pair of booms that unlock and swing to about 65 degrees off vertical, allowing the ship to plummet straight down while retaining the correct orientation. This method of reentry, called a feather position, has two benefits over traditional reentry: it is slower, and thus suffers less reentry heat when encountering atmosphere, and it is much simpler and easier to pull off than the careful and precise requirements of angled reentry, which if flubbed can result in the ship "skipping" off of Earth's atmosphere.
Back on the ground, cameras at a nearby observatory captured the launch, separation, and landing of SpaceShipTwo, which was released by Virgin Galactic to show off their successful flight.
George Whitesides, CEO and President of Virgin Galactic, called the successful flight "a really major milestone in the test flight program," and "confirmation that the basic design of the spaceship is solid."
Virgin Galactic plans on making the first commercial space flights sometime next year, with each ticket aboard the 6 passenger SpaceShipTwo costing a staggering $200,000.