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Virgin Gallactic passes critical flight test

Virgin Gallactic's SpaceShipTwo performed a heart-stopping 15,500 foot-per-minute dive during its `maiden feathered flight,' an event taking the company another step closer toward realizing its ambition of commercializing suborbital space tourism.

The venture, which conducted the flight over California's Mojave Desert earlier this month, hopes to cater to the growing interest among the well-heeled crowd in space tourism. Indeed, it's getting closer to that goal, according to the video of the test that the company released this week.

The craft was carried into the air by a carrier and then dropped from around 51,000 feet. But the near-vertical dive executed by the SpaceShipTwo, also known as the VSS Enterprise, is not for the feint-of-heart. At a certain point in the test flight, the wings folded up, allowing the craft to descend rapidly through the atmosphere without spinning out of control. Later, the wings were again extended and the tail section moved upward, allowing the craft to glide safely back to the landing pad.

More tests are scheduled and the first crop of tourists aren't expected to be able to board for at least another year. But Virgin says that some 430 reservations for the $200,000 rides - have already been placed.

The company is owned by British billionaire Richard Branson.

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