Image: SpaceShipTwo contrail
Michael Fuchs / Virgin Galactic
The pilots of the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane vent some water just before gliding in for a landing on Thursday at California's Mojave Air and Space Port, creating a visible contrail.
updated 1/13/2011 8:28:08 PM ET 2011-01-14T01:28:08

The private spaceflight company Virgin Galactic scored another successful drop test of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital spacecraft today, the latest in a series of smooth solo glides over the California desert for the commercial spaceship.

SpaceShipTwo, designed and built by the Mojave-based company Scaled Composites, was released from its huge mothership a little after 8 a.m. local time today (Jan. 13) and soared in glide mode back to Earth to a runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port. The high-altitude flight did not reach space, but was the fourth in a series of demonstration flights ahead of an actual suborbital spaceflight test.

"We had another great flight today, piloted by Mark Stucky and co-pilot Clint Nichols — a good start for what will be a busy year of flight tests," said George Whitesides, CEO and president of Virgin Galactic. [ 11 Things Americans Will be Doing in Space in 2011 ]

Whitesides told that as part of the test objectives, the pilots vented some water just before coming in to land, which produced a visible contrail.

The first SpaceShipTwo vehicle – dubbed the VSS Enterprise – was carried high above the spaceport and then released by its mothership, the WhiteKnightTwo.

"Went great," said Burt Rutan, the founder of Scaled Composites in a short but sweet e-mail to

The suborbital spaceliner is designed to carry six passengers and two pilots, flying to the edge of space for a spectacular view of the Earth and several minutes of weightlessness.

Virgin Galactic was founded by British entrepreneur and adventurer Sir Richard Branson, famous for creating Virgin Records and Virgin airlines.

The SpaceShipTwo has fulfilled an ever-expanding set of flight objectives, starting with its maiden free-flight Oct. 10. It underwent a glide test Oct. 28 and a drop test Nov. 17.

According to a Scaled Composites flight log, the SpaceShipTwo has flown exceptionally well, with tests showcasing its stability and control during a glide that typically has lasted 11 to 13 minutes.

More tests of the SpaceShipTwo are on the books, part of a campaign to ready the craft for commercial operations. Still to come are flights that will feature short, medium and long blasts from the craft’s hybrid rocket motor.

Spaceport America: the vacuum of politics

In related news, the nearly completed Spaceport America in New Mexico – to be the hub of Virgin Galactic's space travel operations – is under evaluation by a six-person team assigned to the task by newly appointed Gov. Susana Martinez.

That appraisal follows the Jan. 7 resignation of spaceport chief Rick Homans, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, at Martinez’s request.

"While I have embraced this project, it is clear that Governor Martinez is not embracing me. I understand politics, and I also understand how critical it is for her to have absolute trust and confidence in the executive leadership of the NMSA. That is a governor’s prerogative and it is necessary for Spaceport America to succeed," Homans, who had been an appointee of Martinez’s predecessor, Gov. Bill Richardson, said in his resignation letter.

Homans also stated: "My hope is that Governor Martinez can quickly move beyond viewing Spaceport America as the legacy project of Bill Richardson – the very best thing that can happen is for Governor Martinez to embrace this project as her own legacy. She will be the governor who opens the first, purpose-built commercial spaceport in the world – and the world will be watching."

Stuart Witt, general manager of the Mojave Air and Space Port in California – home base for the WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo launch system ?praised Homans in comments to this reporter:

"My association with New Mexico’s Spaceport America has been positive. Mr. Homans has been a delight. His professionalism and friendship within the emerging industry has been exceptional," Witt said.

"I have no clue regarding internal New Mexico organization, operation or politics. While the National Space Agency and private space industry as a whole seek direction and speed, it remains difficult to understand New Mexico’s executive leadership stability in the past three years. Personally, I will deeply miss Mr. Homans. My time with him has left me the benefactor."

Spaceport America is being built as a state-of-the-art launch facility near the town of Truth or Consequences. It is expected to become fully operational this year.

Officials at Spaceport America have been working closely with a number of aerospace firms, such as Armadillo Aerospace, Virgin Galactic, Lockheed Martin, Moog-FTS and UP Aerospace, to develop commercial spaceflight at the new facility.

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for since 1999.

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Photos: The making of SpaceShipTwo

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  1. Birds of a feather...

    SpaceShipTwo in full feather wing mode on a rapid descent from its drop altitude of 51,500 feet over Mojave,Calif., on Wednesday May 4, 2011. The feathered wing is at its full 65 degree angle and remained at this angle for 1 minute and 15 seconds. The craft descended in this configuration at a near vertical angle at a rate of 15,500 feet per minute. The craft was reconfigured to normal glide mode at 33,500 feet. All objectives of the flight were met. The flight duration of SpaceShipTwo following release was approximatel 11 minutes and 5 seconds. This photograph was taken with high powered telescopes from the ground. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Golden Gate ... to space?

    A new Virgin America A320 jet, aptly named "My Other Ride Is a Spaceship," flies in tandem with the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane and its mothership over the Golden Gate Bridge on April 6. The aircraft landed at San Francisco International Airport, becoming the first planes to arrive at the new $388 million, 640,000-square-foot Terminal 2. SpaceShipTwo is expected to begin rocket-powered suborbital test flights sometime in the next year - not from San Francisco, but from the Mojave Air and Space Port near Los Angeles. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin America) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Ready for testing

    Onlookers inspect the back end of the mated WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo planes at the Mojave Air and Space Port during the rocket plane's Dec. 7 unveiling. The eight-person SpaceShipTwo, which was christened the VSS Enterprise, is the first of a series of space planes due to start commercial service in the 2011-2012 time frame. Tests of the rocket plane were to begin within days of the unveiling. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Spaceship's debut

    Illuminated by colored lights, the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane is attached to its WhiteKnightTwo mothership during its rollout on Dec. 7 at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. (Anrew Gombert / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Welcome aboard

    Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson prepares for flight inside the mothership Eve's cockpit at the EAA AirVenture air show in Wisconsin on July 27, 2009. The airplane's pilot, Pete Siebold, and Scaled Composites engineer Bob Morgan help with the preparations. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. First step to space

    The WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane known as Eve flies over mountains during a test flight from its home base at California's Mojave Air and Space Port. Eve is to serve as the mothership for Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane. SpaceShipTwo's test flights are due to begin in 2010. (Robert Scherer) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Riding the wave

    Virgin Group employees sit in the cabin of a prototype Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo spacecraft at London's Science Museum in February 2007. SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry six passengers and two pilots to the edge of outer space for a few minutes of weightlessness and an out-of-this-world view. The fare is $200,000 per passenger. (Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A ride for the boss

    Virgin Galactic's billionaire founder, Richard Branson, flashes a grin as he stands in front on VMS Eve, the WhiteKnightTwo airplane that will eventually carry SpaceShipTwo to its air launch. Branson took his first flight on Eve in July 2009 at the EAA AirVenture air show in Oshkosh, Wis. The plane is named after Branson's mother, who inspired the painting on the fuselage. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Window seats

    Windows dot the interior of the SpaceShipTwo passenger cabin, as seen during an early stage of the rocket plane's construction. The design is aimed at making sure each of the six passengers has a view of the curving Earth and the black sky of space from a height of 62 miles (100 kilometers). (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Fire away!

    The full-scale rocket motor to be used in SpaceShipTwo is successfully test-fired on May 6, 2009, at the Northrop Grumman test facility in San Clemente, Calif. The hybrid rocket motor was built by Scaled Composites and SpaceDev. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. The making of SpaceShipTwo

    Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane is the result of a years-long development effort, following up on the successful suborbital spaceflights of SpaceShipOne in 2004. In this photo, SpaceShipTwo's passenger cabin is being placed on the fuselage inside Scaled Composites' hangar in Mojave, Calif. (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
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