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Virgin's VSS Enterprise Glides, Moves One Bold Step Closer to Space [Video]

Virgin Galactic

Another starship Enterprise just undertook a bold new mission: This time it's Virgin Galactic's premier space vehicle, which has flown its first manned glide flight. It's another successful step on the road to tourists in space.

The tiny spaceship in question is the VSS Enterprise, a bullet-shaped wonder of carbon composite material with a design that's evolved from, but essentially similar to the even tinier SpaceShipOne—Burt Rutan's original X-Prize winning private spacecraft. Yesterday, 10/10/10 (Douglas Adams day, coincidentally) Enterprise slipped its connector to the large, gangly VMS Eve mothership at about 45,000-feet altitude (about half as high again as most airliners you've traveled in typically fly, and just below Concorde's habitual stomping ground) and then undertook an 11 minute unpowered glide back to Virgin's Air and Space Port in Mojave. This flight was designed to test out the flight characteristics of Enterprise, and pretty much simulates the final phase of the typical rocket-space-glide flight profile the vehicle will follow when it hauls paying passengers into space.

It's hugely exciting, of course, whether you're a space buff, someone with a love of tech or Sir Richard Branson himself (who, according to the press release, said it was "one of the most exciting days in the whole history of Virgin") because the first manned flight is a huge milestone to pass. It means the spaceship is airworthy and flyable ("a joy" in the air, according to its test pilot Pete Siebold) and that only a few steps remain before Enterprise can assume its real duties. Before this can happen there will be more glide flights to test the vehicle across its aerodynamic envelope—including with its wings "feathered" as if it were returning from space—and numerous powered flights that push the craft higher and higher.

VSS Enterprise is not the first spacecraft with that name, and though it never went into orbit the Space Shuttle Enterprise has some historical parallels with Virgin's vehicle: Both are named for the original U.S.S. Enterprise NCC1701 from Star Trek. And NASA's version also underwent a rigorous test regime including manned glide flights—the first of which was on August 12th 1977. That means the space industry's taken just 33 years to get from multi-billion dollar Space Shuttles to multi-million dollar private spaceships.

To keep up with this news, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.