The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has cleared SpaceShipTwo, a commercial six-passenger spacecraft owned by Virgin Galactic, to begin rocket-powered suborbital test flights, the company said on Wednesday.
SpaceShipTwo manufacturer Scaled Composites of Mojave, Calif., received a one-year experimental launch permit on May 23 for test flights beyond the atmosphere, FAA spokesman Hank Price said.
The six-passenger, two-pilot spacecraft is based on the prototype SpaceShipOne, which made three suborbital hops beyond the atmosphere.
Virgin Galactic is owned by British billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS. Virgin Galactic has taken deposits from more than 500 people for rides, which cost $200,000.
Participants will experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the curve of Earth set against the black sky of space. NASA's first two manned spaceflights in 1961, by Mercury astronauts Alan Shepard and Virgil "Gus" Grissom were suborbital flights.
Like SpaceShipOne, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo will be flown into the air beneath a carrier jet and released. Once separated, the spaceship's rocket engine will fire to blast it into the sky.
The FAA permit will enable Scaled to move on to rocket-powered flights, the first of which is expected toward the end of the year, Virgin Galactic said in a statement.
In addition to flying wealthy tourists, Scaled has signed contracts to fly researchers and science experiments.
The experimental permit allows Scaled to fly only its own test pilots, not passengers, Mr. Price said.
A date for the start of Virgin Galactic's commercial spaceflights has not yet been set.