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Wednesday, Apr 03 2013 06:29 PM

Space ship completes 24th test flight in Mojave

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    By Bill Deaver

    SpaceShipTwo glides past the faraway moon on its way to an unpowered landing at Mojave Air & Space Port recently. Virgin Galactic hopes to begin powered test flights later this year.

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

How many test flights did the Starship Enterprise undergo before it was cleared to boldly go where no one has gone before?

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo completed its 24th unpowered test flight above Mojave Air & Space Port in eastern Kern County on Wednesday morning.

It appeared to go off without a hitch.

The flight, witnessed by a small group of onlookers and employees, brings the space tourism company another step closer to powered test flights -- the final step before passengers are allowed on-board.

It was only the second time the spaceship, christened VSS Enterprise, has flown with rocket motor components installed -- although the rocket has not yet been fired in flight.

"It appeared to be a textbook flight," said Mojave resident Bill Deaver, a former editor and publisher of the Mojave Desert News who watched the test Wednesday morning.

"It was nominal," he said, "which means nothing bad happened."

A spokeswoman for Virgin Galactic said the company likely would not release a statement about the test on Wednesday, although some information about it may be divulged within a few days.

Wednesday's flight followed another glide test flight in December that the company said met all its objectives.

Virgin has indicated that at least one more glide flight is needed before Enterprise takes that huge next step: its first powered flight.

SpaceShipTwo, designed to carry six paying passengers and two crewmembers into suborbital space, is carried aloft by its larger mothership, WhiteKnightTwo.

During these glide flights, the spaceship is typically released tens of thousands of feet above the earth and, guided by its test pilot, slowly circles downward for an unpowered, but otherwise conventional runway landing.

Once powered flights begin, things will change dramatically.

WhiteKnightTwo will carry SpaceShipTwo to around 50,000 feet, where the mothership will release the smaller spaceplane. The latter's rocket motor will light like a giant blowtorch and crew and passengers will be thrust within a matter of seconds to the blackness and near weightlessness at the edge of space, about 62 miles above the earth.

It's an experience a limited number of humans have experienced.

Virgin plans to manufacture and assemble a fleet of the commercial space vehicles at its sprawling complex in Mojave. The ships will carry the more than 500 passengers who have already made deposits on the $200,000 thrill rides. Film and television actor Ashton Kutcher reportedly purchased the 500th ticket.

Virgin Galactic's billionaire founder Sir Richard Branson, who visited and toured the Mojave facility in November, predicts commercial flights will begin in 2014.

He has said he will be on the first flight.

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