MOJAVE AIR AND SPACE PORT -- The race to make space a profitable destination for tourism and personal adventure continued apace Wednesday when Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo completed its 23rd unpowered test flight above this desert outpost in eastern Kern County.
The "glide flight" was especially significant, Virgin Galactic said in a news release, as it was the first with rocket motor components installed, including tanks. It was also the first flight with thermal protection applied to the spaceship's leading edges.
Wednesday's test -- in very cold conditions -- followed a test flight Friday, which saw SpaceShipTwo fly in the same configuration, but remain mated to its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.
All objectives of both flights were successfully met, according to the release.
Bill Deaver, a longtime Mojave resident and an officer with the town's Chamber of Commerce, witnessed and shot photos of the flight. Deaver said all appeared to go well.
SpaceShipTwo, designed to carry six paying passengers and two crewmembers into suborbital space, landed at just before 8 a.m. as several employees watched, Deaver said.
Virgin plans to manufacture and assemble a fleet of the commercial space vehicles at its sprawling complex in Mojave. The ships will carry the hundreds of people who have already made deposits on the $200,000 thrill rides.
A minimum of two more glide flights are expected, Virgin said, in order to complete all remaining preparation for its first powered test flight next year.
Virgin Galactic billionaire founder Sir Richard Branson, who last month visited and toured the Mojave facility, recently predicted commercial flights will begin in 2014.
Once they commence, the passenger flights are expected to launch from Spaceport America in New Mexico.