Image: Spaceport and aircraft
Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic file
Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo mothership and SpaceShipTwo rocket plane flies over the runway at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
NBC News and news services
updated 5/30/2012 8:48:20 PM ET 2012-05-31T00:48:20

The Federal Aviation Administration has cleared SpaceShipTwo, a commercial six-passenger spacecraft owned by Virgin Galactic, to begin rocket-powered suborbital test flights, the company said Wednesday.

SpaceShipTwo manufacturer Scaled Composites of Mojave, Calif., received a one-year experimental launch permit on May 23 for test flights beyond the atmosphere, FAA spokesman Hank Price said.

The six-passenger, two-pilot spacecraft is based on the prototype SpaceShipOne, also built by Scaled, which clinched the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 for the first privately funded human spaceflights.

SpaceShipOne made three suborbital hops beyond the atmosphere, each with a solo pilot aboard, ultimately reaching an altitude of nearly 70 miles (112 kilometers) above Earth. SpaceShipOne is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

Virgin Galactic is owned by British billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS. Branson hired SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan, who has since retired from Scaled, to create a fleet of spaceships for commercial use. Virgin Galactic has taken deposits from more than 500 people for rides, which cost $200,000 per seat.

Participants will experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the curve of Earth set against the black sky of space. The suborbital flight profile is similar to that of NASA's first two manned spaceflights in 1961, involving Mercury astronauts Alan Shepard and Virgil "Gus" Grissom.

Like SpaceShipOne, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo will be flown into the air beneath a carrier jet and released. Once separated, the spaceship's rocket engine will fire to blast it into the sky. SpaceShipTwo has completed 16 free flight tests.

The FAA permit will enable Scaled, now wholly owned by Northrop Grumman, to move on to rocket-powered flights, the first of which is expected toward the end of the year, Virgin Galactic said in a statement.

Virgin Galactic's president, George Whitesides, called the permit an "important milestone" that puts the company "a major step closer to bringing our customers to space."

In addition to flying wealthy tourists, Scaled has signed contracts to fly researchers and science experiments.

The experimental permit allows Scaled to fly only its own test pilots, not passengers, Price said.

A date for the start of Virgin Galactic's commercial spaceflights has not yet been set, although the current best guess is no earlier than 2013.

This report includes information from Reuters' Irene Klotz.

© 2013 msnbc.com

Photos: The making of SpaceShipTwo

loading photos...
  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
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments