*Commercial flights expected to begin in 2012
*A few minutes of space flight for $200,000
By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., March 22 A suborbital spaceship owned by aspiring space tourism operator Virgin Galactic was airlifted into the skies over California's Mojave Desert on Monday for its debut test flight.
The sleek, six-passenger ship, called VSS Enterprise, remained attached to its carrier aircraft throughout the two-hour, 54-minute flight.
Virgin Galactic, an offshoot of billionaire Richard Branson's London-based Virgin Group, has collected about $45 million in deposits and fares from more than 330 aspiring amateur astronauts, each of whom will be charged $200,000 to experience a few minutes of suborbital spaceflight.
Entreprise was designed and built by Burt Rutan, founder of Mojave-based Scaled Composites, now a wholly owned subsidiary of Northrop Grumman.
"Watching VSS Enterprise fly for the first time really brings home what beautiful, ground-breaking vehicles Burt and his team have developed for us," Branson said in a statement.
Test flights are scheduled through 2011, with commercial operations targeted to begin in 2012.
Enterprise is closely modeled on a prototype suborbital spaceship named SpaceShipOne, which won a $10 million prize for the first privately financed manned spaceflights in 2004. It is now in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. (Editing by Tom Brown)