May 18, 2011 at 10:44 PM ET
Virgin Galactic's video of this month's first "feathered" flight of SpaceShipTwo gives you the best sense yet of what it will be like to fly up, blast off, hurtle down and glide back to Earth in the rocket plane. The only thing lacking in this five-minute clip is the rocket-powered kick up to outer space.
The video shows SpaceShipTwo, also known as the VSS Enterprise, being released from its White Knight Two carrier airplane. Then the plane's wings fold up to create a "shuttlecock" shape that can fall freely through the atmosphere, shedding energy without flipping over or spinning wildly. Eventually, the wings are folded back down, turning the craft into a glider that rolls to a stop at California's Mojave Air and Space Port.
Hundreds of folks have already put down deposits for $200,000 space tour packages that will carry them up beyond the 62-mile boundary of outer space, to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and the thrills of a 6-G roller-coaster ride. Unpowered test glides are expected to run through the rest of this year, with rocket-powered tests due to begin early next year. (In the video, it looks as if there's a puff of propellant from thrusters to help SpaceShipTwo pull away from White Knight Two.)
It'll probably be more than a year before passenger service begins, but space tourism is already generating a lot of buzz. Here's sampling: